|Publisher:||University of California Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition, With a New Preface|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
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The Railway Journey
The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century
By Wolfgang Schivelbusch
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2014 Wolfgang Schivelbusch
All rights reserved.
The Mechanization of Motive Power
L'industrie est devenue la vie des peuples. [Industry has become the life of the nations.]
— Marc Séguin, 1839
In the economic life of the pre-industrial era, wood was the prime material, universally used in construction and as combustible matter. The shipbuilding industry of the European maritime powers, the iron works and the machines built in the manufacturing and early industrial period were all based on the use of wood. Werner Sombart, the economic historian, regarded the exhaustion of this resource (i.e., the deforestation of Western Europe in the eighteenth century) as an essential factor, or perhaps even the main incentive for the development of industrial capitalism. In the pre-industrial era, 'wood affected all areas of cultural existence, being the prerequisite for the prosperity of all branches of economic life: so general was its use in the production of material goods that the characteristics of culture before the eighteenth century were decidedly wooden, and thus that culture retained an "organic" quality in its material and sensual aspect'.
Next to wood, water and wind power were the main energy sources of pre-industrial economic life. The Industrial Revolution, generally seen as having begun in the last third of the eighteenth century, was a complex process of denaturalization. The abolition of 'live' workmanship by the division of labor, a process first described by Adam Smith, corresponded in terms of materials and energies to the 'emancipation from the boundaries of nature' (Sombart) which occurs when 'live' natural materials and energies are replaced by mineral or synthetic ones. Thus wood lost its universal function. Iron became the new industrial building material, coal the new combustible. In the steam engine, the prime mover of industry, these two combined to produce energy in theoretically unlimited amounts. The technological development of the steam engine in the eighteenth century exemplified the gradual process of industry's emancipation from nature. The initial economic utilization of steam power occurred in the early part of the century when Newcomen's atmospheric steam engine was deployed in the Newcastle mining region to pump water out of mine shafts. The Newcastle region can be regarded as Europe's first industrial landscape in that coal began to determine the physical aspect of the environment. Thus Daniel Defoe, who had a clear understanding of the economics of his day, traveled through the region and expressed his astonishment at the 'prodigious Heaps, I might say Mountains, of Coals, which are dug up at every Pit, and how many of those Pits there are; we are filled ... with Wonder to consider where the People should live that can consume them'. The Newcomen engine was a crude contraption, only capable of a back-and-forth motion, consuming incredible amounts of fuel, and comparatively weak in performance. However, as it was used in the coal-producing region, its excessive fuel (i.e., coal) consumption was no problem. As early as 1767, fifty-seven Newcomen engines were working in the area.
The waterwheel remained the main energy source for England's manufacturing industry in the eighteenth century. Yet, following the evolutionary pattern characteristic of the Industrial Revolution, the water-wheel was to be aided by a curious intermediate adaptation that pointed the way to mechanization: water-powered factories attempted to end their dependence on seasonally variable water levels by installing the Newcomen engine to pump back the used water (i.e., the water that had already passed through the wheel and would have been lost otherwise). This recycling process was a kind of mechanization of the mill race: it regularized the previously natural and erratic stream of water and transformed it into an aqueous driving belt. Thus water-power became a merely incidental element in a uniform and regular mechanized process whose true mover was the steam engine.
That bypass became obsolete with the development of a steam engine capable of rotary motion. Watt's low-pressure engine, perfected in the 1780s was such a technological advance. Thus steam power left its original 'natural' habitat, the coalfields, and became an essential part of the manufacturing industry. Watt's engine used only a fraction of the fuel required by Newcomen's. Its performance was also far better and it produced the rotary motion required by industry. (The immediate incentive for Watt's development of the low-pressure engine was the saturation of the coal mine market with Newcomen pump engines. Its manufacturer, the firm of Watt & Boulton, urged Watt to develop an engine for the new market of the manufacturing industries. The success of this speculation demonstrates that industry had in the meantime indeed developed a need for mechanical power.)
At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the evolution of the steam engine reached its culmination in Oliver Evans' high-pressure engine. Once again, the improvement was tremendous: the engine's performance was no longer based solely on condensation, but on the immediate effect of steam pressure. This made it possible to further reduce the size of the engines, which had been quite unwieldy, while increasing performance and reducing fuel consumption. On the other hand, it became necessary, in order to meet the requirements of increased temperature and pressure, to improve the quality of machine technology and its materials.
The intensification achieved by the high-pressure engine — maximal work performance with minimal machinery — permitted the mobile use of the steam engine, that is, its use as locomotive. This first occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the coalfields around Newcastle, where the Newcomen engine had found its first application a century before. In the wake of the now full-blown Industrial Revolution and its increased demand for coal, the region, already transformed by coal production in Defoe's time, underwent further changes. The land between the mines and the river Tyne became covered by a dense network of railways up to ten miles long — descendants of the rails used in mountain mine shafts since the late Middle Ages. These railways were appendages of the mines and were used only to move coal. The wagons were first pulled by horses, but after the end of the Napoleonic Wars these were progressively replaced by steam-powered locomotives. The changeover to mechanized motive power was possible because in the mining region, fuel (coal) was cheaper than food — which latter had to be shipped from other regions. From 1815 on, coal became cheaper to use than food throughout England and in that year, Parliament, dominated by agricultural interests, passed a Corn Law which, by imposing steep taxes on imported grain, forced grain prices to rise. Obviously, the artificially high level of grain prices helped to replace horsepower by mechanical power in much the same way as the shortage of wood in eighteenth-century Europe had accelerated the development of coal production. Confirmation for this is provided by a contemporary, Thomas Grahame, who, in 1834 when steam locomotion was an accomplished fact, described the choice the English industrial capitalists had to make: 'The landed capitalists of Britain ... have by the taxes on corn and provisions more than doubled the price of animal labour, whether of man or horses. To avoid the effects of these taxes the monied capitalists of Britain have been for years devoting their capital to the promotion of those inventions by which taxed animal power may be dispensed with; and their endeavours have been crowned with eminent success'.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were plans to develop the railroads into a general and national mode of transportation. The 1820s saw the origins of a fully-fledged 'railroad movement', whose main promoters were agreed that the railroad, which in the meantime carried not only coal but other goods and passengers, must be powered by steam. The high cost of grain was a recurrent and standard argument. According to Adam Smith, the upkeep of a horse was equal to the feeding of eight laborers. Thus, it was argued, when the one million horses kept for purposes of transportation in England were made redundant by mechanization, they would release additional foodstuffs for eight million laborers.
Thomas Gray, the most important railroad promoter of the time, whose Observations on a General Iron Rail-Way appeared in five editions between 1820 and 1825, considerably expanded each time, argued for his proposed steam-driven railroad as follows: 'The exorbitant demands now made on the public, for conveyance of goods and persons by waggons and coaches, are caused principally, if not altogether, by the enormous expense of a stock of horses, the continual renewal of the stock, and the intolerable expense of their keep'.
It is possible to see how advanced mechanization was in Britain at this time, in both theory and practice, when one consults a roughly contemporary French statement on the question of animal versus mechanical power. Pierre-Simon Girard, an engineer and member of the Académie des Sciences, who in 1819 had been given the task of planning and realizing a street-lighting system for the city of Paris, ostensibly summarized the state of the English debate on horsepower versus steam power in an article published in 1827; in fact, his account, tinged with eighteenth-century physiocratic theory, projects French conditions onto England:
The use of steam engines as locomotives on the railways is still a great open question in today's England. While one is willing to agree with the partisans of this solution that locomotives would be more economical than the use of horses, it is necessary to point out that the fuel on whose consumption these engines depend for the production of their motive power has to be extracted daily from natural deposits whose vast expanses nevertheless are not inexhaustible ... The use of horses is not subject to similar hazards; the motive power horses are able to produce is fed by products of the soil that nature renews every year and will continue to reproduce in ever greater abundance as agriculture grows more advanced.
The apprehension that coal resources would be exhausted one day, combined with the notion that organic horsepower is able to reproduce itself ad infinitum, reflected not only the physiocratic tradition that guided Girard's thinking, but also the economic realities of France during this period: specifically, the state of French coal production. During the first third of the nineteenth century, coal, in France, was un produit révolutionnaire. While in England, coal production was sixteen million tons in 1816, thirty million tons in 1836, forty-four million tons in 1846, and fifty-seven million tons in 1851, French production figures were much lower: one million tons in 1820, two million tons in 1837, and five million tons in 1846.
In addition, French production was not centered in one region, but was scattered throughout the country. Unlike the English, whose coal industry was centralized in a way that altered both landscape and consciousness, the French were unable to perceive coal as the endlessly available fuel. It was precisely because of the physical reality of the concentration of English coal production, and their awareness of it, that the English were able to mechanize motive power with such ease.
The mechanization of overland traffic subjected it to the same degree of regularization that had already been firmly established in bourgeois self-discipline and in industrial production. Unlike traffic on the waterways, land traffic had until then been the weakest link in the chain of capitalist emancipation from the limits of organic nature, because animal power — on which land traffic was based — cannot be intensified above a certain fairly low level. Yet one should not underestimate the efforts made in the decades before the advent of the railroads to increase the efficiency of land traffic within the framework of these narrow natural limits. These efforts did, in fact, introduce a trend that eventually made mechanization appear as the final logical step. According to Bagwell — who, interpreting the material available to him, saw the English 'transport revolution' as beginning as early as 1770 — traveling time between the most important cities was reduced by four-fifths between 1750 and 1830, and cut in half between 1770 and 1830. The trip from London to Edinburgh, which in the 1750s still required ten days in the summer, took only forty-five and a half hours in 1836. With the increase in traveling speed came increases in the number of traveled routes, in traffic intensity and in the number of transportation enterprises. In the ten most important English cities, there were eight times as many regular departures in 1830 as there had been in 1790; Bagwell thinks that the number of passengers was multiplied by a factor of fifteen, as some of them were carried 'outside' (i.e., on top of the coach) on regular runs. Due to these improvements, the stagecoach surpassed the riding horse as the fastest mode of land transportation. Karl Philipp Moritz gives us a vivid impression of that highly developed mode of passenger traffic in his Reisen eines Deutschen in England (Travels of a German in England). At this time, in the 1780s, the German traveler mostly proceeded on foot. Moritz, who attempted to wander about England in this manner, found himself regarded as a curiosity. He noted with surprise that in England even the lower orders traveled by stagecoach.
Finally, the high degree of development that the coach system achieved can be seen in its economic concentration: of the 342 scheduled daily departures from London listed in John Bates' Directory of Stage Coach Services for 1836, 275 were run by three enterprises, the largest of which, owned by William James Chaplin, also had considerable interests in the catering business and employed a total of more than two thousand people and eighteen hundred horses. (Bagwell, p. 50).
One of the main arguments for replacing the horse teams with steam locomotives was presented by Nicholas Wood, author of the most authoritative technical work of his time on railroads: 'The greatest exertions have been used to accelerate the speed of the mails (which have hitherto been the quickest species of conveyance), without being able to exceed ten miles an hour; and that only with the exercise of such destruction of animal power, as no one can contemplate with feelings except of the most painful nature; while, upon the Liverpool Rail-way, an average rate of fifteen miles is kept up with the greatest ease'. (Italics added.)
How long overdue the mechanically produced means of locomotion must have seemed to the progressive contemporary consciousness — and how hopelessly anachronistic the animal power still in use — can be seen in a text from 1825 that juxtaposes both forms of locomotion:
The animal advances not with a continued progressive motion, but with a sort of irregular hobbling, which raises and sinks its body at every alternate motion of the limbs. This is distinctly felt on horseback, and it is the same when an animal draws a load. Even in walking and running one does not move regularly forward. The body is raised and depressed at every step of our progress; it is this incessant lifting of the mass which constitutes that drag on our motions which checks their speed, and confines it within such moderate limits.... With machinery this inconvenience is not felt; the locomotive engine rolls regularly and progressively along the smooth tracks of the way, wholly unimpeded by the speed of its own motions; and this, independent of its economy, is one of the great advantages it possesses over animal power.
The mechanical motion generated by steam power is characterized by regularity, uniformity, unlimited duration and acceleration. 'No animal strength', says Gray, 'will be able to give that uniform and regular acceleration to our commercial intercourse which may be accomplished by railway'.
As the motion of transportation was freed from its organic fetters by steam power, its relationship to the space it covered changed quite radically. Pre-industrial traffic is mimetic of natural phenomena. Ships drifted with water and wind currents, overland motion followed the natural irregularities of the landscape and was determined by the physical powers of the draught animals. Charles Babbage observed, concerning the eotechnical utilization of wind and water power: 'We merely make use of bodies in a state of motion; we change the directions of their movement, in order to render them subservient to our purposes, but we neither add to nor diminish the quantity of motion in existence'.
Excerpted from The Railway Journey by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Copyright © 2014 Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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