James Watt didn’t invent the steam engine, but he did create the world’s first modern one, and developed the means of measuring its power. In the 1760s, the Scottish inventor began tinkering with an earlier version of the engine designed by Thomas Newcomen. Newcomen’s design required constant cooling down and re-heating, wasting vast amounts of energy. Watt’s innovation was to add a separate condenser, greatly improving the engine’s efficiency. A savvy salesman, Watt knew that he needed a way to market his new product. He calculated how much power a single horse working in a mill could produce over a period of time (though many scientists now believe his estimates were far too high), a figure that he dubbed “horsepower.” Using this unit of measurement, he then came up with a figure that indicated how many horses just one of his engines could replace. The sales ploy worked—we’re still using the term “horsepower” today—and his engines soon became the industry standard, leading directly to invention of the first steam locomotive in 1804.
In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad became the first U.S. company granted a charter for transporting both passengers and freight. However, the company struggled to produce a steam engine capable of traveling over rough and uneven terrain, instead relying on horse-drawn trains. Enter industrialist Peter Cooper: Cooper, who not coincidentally owned extensive land holdings over the proposed route of the railroad (the value of which would grow dramatically if the railroad succeeded), offered to design and build just such an engine. On August 28, 1830, Cooper’s engine, which he called the “Tom Thumb,” was undergoing testing on B&O tracks near Baltimore when a horse-drawn train pulled up alongside it and challenged Cooper (and “Tom Thumb”) to a race. Cooper accepted, and the race was on. The steam engine quickly roared into the lead, but when a belt broke loose it was forced to retire, and the horse crossed the finish line first. However, B&O executives, impressed with the massive power and speed Cooper’s engine had proven capable of, made the decision to convert their fledgling railroad to steam. The B&O became one of the most successful railways in the United States, and Cooper (with his newly minted fortune) went on to a career as an investor and philanthropist, donating the money for New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
Throughout the war, railroads enabled the quick transport of large numbers of soldiers and heavy artillery over long distances. One of the most significant uses of trains came after the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was able to send 20,000 badly needed replacement troops more than 1,200 miles from Washington, D.C. to Georgia (in just 11 days) to fortify Union forces—the longest and fastest troop movement of the 19th century. Control of the railroad in a region was crucial to military success, and railroads were often targets for military attacks aimed at cutting off the enemy from its supplies. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman provided particularly adept at the art of railroad sabotage. During his infamous “March” through Georgia and the Carolinas, his men destroyed thousands of miles of Confederate rails, leaving heaps of heated, twisted iron that southerners wearily referred to as “Sherman’s neckties.”
George Pullman, who had made a name for himself during the 1850s as a self-trained engineer and building mover in Chicago, began tinkering with the idea of a comfortable railroad “sleeping car” after a particularly uncomfortable train ride in upstate New York. By 1863, he had produced his first two models, the Pioneer and the Springfield, named for the Illinois hometown of then-President Abraham Lincoln. Pullman’s cars were indeed comfortable, but they were also prohibitively expensive and few railroad companies were interested in leasing them—until President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865. After Lincoln’s death,, a Pullman car was used as part of the cortege that travelled through several Northern cities before returning his body to Illinois. The funeral train was front-page news, and when Pullman also temporarily loaned one of his beautiful sleeper cars to a grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln, the publicity poured in. Two years later, he established the Pullman Palace Car Company, which would revolutionize train travel around the world. Curiously enough, when Pullman died in 1897, his replacement as head of the company was none other than Robert Todd Lincoln, the slain president’s eldest son.
In 1841, Englishman Thomas Cook, a Baptist minister, organized a train excursion for 540 parishioners to attend a temperance meeting in London. Cook negotiated a set fare for passengers, including tickets and a meal. The trip was so successful that he expanded his operations, first within the United Kingdom and then to the United States and Europe, providing passengers with comprehensive packages including transportation, accommodations and meals. In 1873, the agency, now known as Thomas Cook and Son, launched an international railway timetable, still published today, and by 1890 they were selling more than 3 million rail tickets annually.
Britain adopted a standardized time system in 1847, but it took nearly 40 more years before the United States joined the club. America still ran on local time, which could vary from town to town (and within cities themselves), making scheduling arrival, departure, and connection times nearly impossible. After years of lobbying for standardized time, representatives from all major U.S. railways met on October 11, 1883, for what became known as the General Time Convention, where they adopted a proposal that would establish five time zones spanning the country: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. The plan originally called for a fifth time zone, the Intercontinental, which was instituted several years later and became known as Atlantic Time. At noon on November 18, the U.S. Naval Observatory sent out a telegraph signal marking 12:00 pm ET, and railway office in cities and towns across the country calibrated their clocks accordingly. However, it wasn’t until 1918 that standard time became the official law of the land, when Congress passed legislation recognizing the time zone system (and instituting a new “daylight savings time” designed to conserve resources for the World War I war effort).
It didn’t take long for railroads to catch on in the United States. The same year that the “Tom Thumb” lost its race, there were just 23 miles of railroad tracks in the United States. But within 20 years there were more than 9,000, as the U.S. government passed its first Railroad Land Grant Act, designed to attract settlers to the undeveloped parts of the country. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there were 30,000 miles (more than 21,000 of them in the North), and lobbyists were clamoring for a transcontinental system across the nation. The number of railroad miles continued to climb until hitting its peak in 1916. That year there were more than 250,000 miles of track—enough to reach the moon from Earth.
When Englishman Richard Trevithick launched the first practical steam locomotive in 1804, it averaged less than 10 mph. Today, several high-speed rail lines are regularly travelling 30 times as fast. When Japan’s first Shinkansen or “bullet trains,” opened to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they were capable of running at speeds in excess of 130 mph. In the 40 years since, the top speed of these trains has been steadily climbing, with a current world speed record of 361 mph. Japan is no longer alone in the high-speed rail department however: France, China and Germany all operate trains capable of similar extreme speeds, and the plans are currently underway in the United States to construct a high-speed rail line connecting the California cities of San Francisco and Anaheim.