Today, we face time-warp on a railway train. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A Scottish couple joined my
wife and me in the dining car of the train from
Toronto to Edmonton. He turned out to be the
retired head of maintenance for the railways of
Western Scotland. He was literally taking a
Earlier on the trip, I'd found Dionysius Lardner's
book on steam engines and locomotives in a dusty
shop. Published in 1836, it told the state of the
art of railways only 16 years after Trevithick had
run the very first locomotive in London.
So I showed my old book to this Scottish engineer.
He plunged into it. He turned a knowing eye on the
browning pages and told me which elements of those
embryonic engines were still to be found on modern
railways. He paused lovingly over one 160-year-old
engine that his staff had built in a modern
Then he drew a recent newspaper clipping from his
wallet. It told about the system the Germans and
Japanese are building. A train will run at 250 mph,
magnetically levitated on a cushion of air. I read
the article while he turned pages in Lardner's
Later we talked in the dome car as we rolled across
Alberta's prairies. This luxury train was made in
the '50s. "How fast are we going," I wondered. "Oh,
maybe 45-50 mph," he guessed. Then he added,
We could go a lot faster, but the roadbed isn't
up to it. The curves are a little tight for
passenger comfort at high speed. Besides, you don't
want to subject those old wooden ties to much
pounding. Nowadays they make railway ties of
And I realized this ride was an old experience
frozen in time. At first, railways had developed
very fast. Lardner tells about a statesman who'd
recently suffered an accident. Friends used one of
those early locomotives to get him to the doctor
fifteen miles away. By pouring on coal they'd
managed an astounding 36 mph. A year later, the
editor of my American copy adds a footnote. An
American line now has trains that reach 40 mph, not
much slower than we now moved through Canada 160
So I rode the time-warp of a technology that'd once
transformed the Americas and now was fading. I
enjoyed two days of quiet, gently rocking recess
from work. I read Lardner and talked with this man
who'd spent 47 years in railways -- listened as he
told of future trains that'll soon approach the
speed of sound.
America once ruled the rails. By 1900 we'd reached
speeds of 100 mph. Then, after WW-I, cars and
airplanes distracted us. We may yet reclaim the
technology that was this engineer's entire life --
which once shaped life on earth and now offers to
shape it anew. I hope we do. After two restful days
among lakes, rocks and trees that're invisible from
30,000 feet, I hope we do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lardner, D., the Steam Engine Familiarly
Explained and Illustrated, Philadelphia: E.L.
Carey & A. Hart, 1836. See especially Chapter X,
Locomotive Engines on Railways, Chapter XI,
Locomotive Engines on Turnpike Roads, and Chapter
XIX, Plain Rules for Railway Speculators.
Lardner, D., Popular Lectures on the Steam
Engine, New York: Printed for Elam Bliss.
(In this first American edition of Lardner's first
edition, he discusses Richard Trevithick's
experiments with high pressure engines on p. 147 et
seq. Lardner devotes only one sentence to
Trevithick's steam driven "land carriage" on p.
I'd bought both Lardner editions mentioned above at
Ahab's Books in Boston. The clipping that the man
showed me was from a June 20, 1994 Canadian paper,
I don't know which one. We were riding on Canada's
VIA Passenger Train Network, Silver and Blue Class.
This episode was written in 1994. Since then the
magnetic levitation rail systems mentioned above
have been greatly developed. See, e.g., Episode 1745.
From The Steam Engine Familiarly
A state-of-the-art locomotive in 1835
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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