The Steam Locomotive – 1823
The world had gone on for many ages without the use of steam or electricity, or any machinery at all except such very simple things as carts, pumps, and spinning-wheels. But from the time of the Industrial Revolution this country at any rate seemed as though it could not be happy without constantly pushing on from the start which Watt’s steam-engine and the other things had given it; and as everybody knows, who reads the newspaper reports about airships, scientific men are pushing on now harder than ever. In the course of the nineteenth century there were many such inventions, and amongst them a few great ones which really changed the whole life of the civilised world.
The first of these to occur to all our minds is the railway train. As early as , in point of fact, a Frenchman had got hold of the idea that steam-power might be used for moving things along as well as for working machines, and here and there over England and France a few little engines were used during the next half century to pull trucks over ordinary roads. But the true locomotive was the invention of George Stephenson, a Northumbrian working man. He went on for many years with a series of experiments, until he was able to build the engine which he felt quite sure was going to change the the whole face of England. And although locomotives have of course been improved since Stephenson’s day, they are still on the whole what he made them. At the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in , only seven year after the very first English line was made, the train went thirty-six miles an hour, which is as fast as we travel in good many parts of Great Britain to-day.
It is rather amusing now to read of the objections which people made to the introduction of railways. When the Bill to allow the first line between Stockton and Darlington was before Parliament in , a Duke in the House of Lords opposed it because he thought it would spoil his fox-covers. Then other people wrote articles about railway trains to show that it would be dreadfully dangerous to go in them, and that a row-boat on the Thames was really quicker and better. And when the lines were being rapidly made during the next twenty or thirty years, many country towns refused to let one come at all near them.
But of course these old-fashioned ideas could not last long. The canals had been nearly choked with traffic for years already, and railways gave new life to the trade of the country. It is really not easy to say which class of people the change affected most, whether the merchants and manufacturers who could send goods all over the country so quickly, or the working men who could take their labour where it was wanted. And the private life of nearly all of us has been made amazingly different now that we can travel, for instance, between Yorkshire and London in four or five hours at the cost of a third-class ticket, instead of taking about three days over the journey in a stage-coach and spending nights at inns on the way. Most of the places which would not have the railway first regretted it bitterly afterwards, and very often, when you find a town with the station inconveniently far off, it means that the people there are suffering for the prejudices of their grandparents. To the British almost more than any other nation it was important to find a way in which this great new force of steam could be used at sea as well as on land.
Excerpt from Landmarks of British History by Lucy Dale – 1910
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