Science and Invention


How long have trains been in use?

Trains date as far back as the sixteenth century when crude railroads operated in the underground coal and iron ore mines of Europe. These systems consisted of two wooden rails that extended into the mines and across the mine floors. Wheeled wagons were pulled along the rails by men or by horses. Early in the eighteenth century, mining companies expanded on this rail system, bringing it above ground to transport the coal and iron ore. Workers found that they could cover the wooden rails with iron so they wouldn’t wear out as quickly. Before long, rails were made entirely of iron.

Meanwhile, the steam engine had been developed. An engineer in the mines of Cornwall, England, Richard Trevithick (1771–1833), constructed a working model of a locomotive engine in 1797. Three years later, he built the first high-pressure steam engine. He made quick progress from there, building a road carriage, which on Christmas Eve 1801 became the first vehicle to convey passengers by steam. Two years later, the inventor had built the world’s first steam railway locomotive.

In 1825 progress in rail transportation was made by another English inventor, George Stephenson (1781–1848), who, after patenting his own locomotive engine (1815), finished construction on the world’s first public railroad. The train ran a distance of about 20 miles, conveying passengers from Stockton to Darlington, England. In 1830 Stephenson completed a line between Liverpool and Manchester. Rail travel caught on quickly—and remains an efficient means of transport today, with commuters around the world relying on trains to get them to work each day.

While Stephenson went on to build more railways, and build a family business in the process, Trevithick did not fare nearly as well: Though he later found other uses for the high-pressure steam engine (including rock boring, dredging, and agriculture), he died penniless.

When did rail service in the United States reach from coast to coast?

Railroad officials and employees celebrate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in Promontory, Utah, 1869.

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