Steam, coal, and iron brought the railway age. Coal powered the railways and the railways carried coal. Though railways based on wooden rails were known from the sixteenth century, iron and steel rails made it possible to carry huge weights and mount giant locomotives to pull long trains.
Canals and hard-surfaced roads had preceded railroads in Europe and North America. A Scot, John McAdam (1756-1836), had devised a means of surfacing (called “macadamizing”) roads so that they could be traveled in all weather, but extra-heavy shipments nonetheless broke the road’s surface. The railway was the answer, once cast-iron rails were developed. By the 1820s only mechanization remained to be accomplished. George Stephenson (1781-1848) and others put the steam engine on wheels and created the modern locomotive. The railroad-building boom was soon in full swing: Britain had 500 miles of track in 1838, 6,600 miles in 1850, and 15,500 in 1870.
Steam also affected water transport, though at a less revolutionary pace. Robert Fulton’s (1765-1815) steam boat, the Clermont, made a successful trip on the Hudson River in 1807, and soon paddle-wheel steamers plied the inland waterways of the United States and Europe. However, when the Scot Samuel Cunard inaugurated the first regular transatlantic steamer service (between Liverpool and Boston in 1840), the coal required for the voyage
took up almost half the space on his vessels.
Consequently, only passengers and mail went by steamship, most freight being handled by sailing ships. Finally, in the 1860s, the development of improved marine engines and the substitution of the screw propeller for the paddle wheel forecast the doom of the commercial sailing vessel.
Communications also experienced radical improvement. In 1840 Great Britain inaugurated the penny post; a letter could go from London to Edinburgh, for instance, at the cost of one penny, less than a tenth of the old rate. More dramatic was the utilization of electricity for instantaneous communication, beginning with the first telegraph message from Baltimore to Washington in 1844. Then came the first submarine cable (under the English Channel) in 1851, the first transatlantic cable in 1866, and the first telephone in 1876.
This communications revolution was not limited to Britain. Belgium also used the turnpike principle, establishing all-weather roads financed by tolls, so that by 1850 most major centers were reachable even in the worst weather. The Ruhr River, made navigable by 1780, was tied in by roads and canals to the rest of Germany, France, and the Low Countries. But canals were frequently built too soon, before there was enough traffic to pay for them. It was the railways, which could transport goods, passengers, and armies, that truly transformed the Continent as they had Britain.
The first British railroad opened in 1830; the rest of Europe was not far behind. By 1870, 897,000 miles of rails had been laid in western Europe, the United States had its own transcontinental line, and railroads were flourishing in Canada and in faraway Australia. The lines differed in one important respect.
In Britain traffic for the lines existed before they were built, and railway companies could easily find private capital for finances. In western Europe and in much of the United States, however, lines were built as traffic grew to require them, and private capital needed a government guarantee or subsidy, since the profit margin was precarious. In eastern Europe lines were built well before there was enough traffic to make them profitable, and state financing was necessary.
Thus a varying pattern of private capital, state-aided capital, foreign capital, and state-controlled capital developed. In Britain the railways boosted an industrial revolution already in progress; in western Europe the railways often created the revolution; in eastern Europe, to which the iron, rails, locomotives, engineers, and capital all had to be imported, the railway boom led countries into debt and threatened ruin.