2.18 Transportation and Communication

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began with mining and textiles, but its effects were probably most dramatic in transportation. The first experimental railroad was put in use in 1820, and the first passenger railroad followed in 1830, traveling between the industrial cities of Manchester and Liverpool in northern England. By the middle of the century some trains could go 50 MPH, far faster than any human had ever gone before (except when falling from a great height). About 6,500 miles of rail was built in Britain between 1830 and 1850, just 20 years, and railroad expansion soon followed suit on the continent. The construction of railroads became a massive industry unto itself, fueling both profitable investment and the occasional disastrous financial collapse.

Above and beyond their economic impact, railroads had a myriad of social and cultural effects. The British developed the system of time zones, based on Greenwich (part of London) Mean Time as the “default,” because the railroads had to be coordinated to time departures and arrivals. This was the first time when a whole country, and soon a whole continent, had to have a precise shared sense of timing.

Likewise, the telegraph was invented in 1830 and used initially to warn train stations when multiple trains were on the track. Telegraphs allowed almost instant communication over huge distances – they sent a series of electrical impulses over a wire as “long” and “short” signals. The inventor of the telegraph, Samuel Morse, invented a code based off of those signals that could be translated into letters and, as a result, be used to send messages. Morse Code thus enabled the first modern mass communications device. This was the first time when a message could travel faster than could a messenger on horseback, vastly increasing the speed by which information could be shared and disseminated.

Simultaneously, steamships were transforming long-distance commerce. The first sailed in 1816, going about twice as fast as the fastest sailing ship could. This had obvious repercussions for trade, because it became cheaper to transport basic goods via steamship than it was to use locally-produced ones; this had huge impacts on agriculture and forestry, among other industries. Soon, it became economically viable to ship grain from the United States or Russia across oceans to reach European markets. The first transatlantic crossing was a race between two steamships going from England to New York in 1838; soon, sailing vessels became what they are today: archaic novelties.

Two other advances in transportation are often overlooked when considering industrialization: paved roads and canals. A Scottish engineer invented a way to cheaply pave roads in the 1830s, and in the 1850s an overland, pan-European postal service was established that relied on “post roads” with stations for changing horses. Thus, well before the invention of cars, road networks were being built in parallel to railroads. Likewise, even though canals had been around since ancient times, there was a major canal-building boom in the second half of the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth. Canals linked Manchester to coal fields, the Erie Canal was built in the US to link the great lakes to the eastern seaboard, and even Russia built a canal between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The net effect of these innovations was that travel was vastly cheaper, simpler, and faster than it had ever been in human history. In essence, every place on earth was closer together than ever before.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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