The greatest inventions in history are created because they are needed. The wheel – transport. Writing – to record crops and trade. The machine gun – to efficiently kill. The trench – to avoid machine guns. The plane – spy on trenches. The rocket – to dodge the RAF and strike British cities. The first modern railway? Read on.
In the early 1800s Britain was the workshop of the world. Raw materials had barely arrived into bustling ports before they were bent and boxed into products ready to be bartered for and bought around the globe. Money was king and it seemed that Adam Smith’s invisible hand was guiding progress from beyond the grave.
This process was none more evident than the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. The former was the port built on profits of carrying slaves to America but now thrived on the cotton picked by the unfortunate descendants of their wicked trade. Manchester was the workshop in which great looms transformed the cotton into cloth. But there was a problem. The canals linking the cities could not cope with the 1,000 tons of cargo per day being hauled on the 31 mile trip. Unreliable in cold weather and heavily tolled by their aristocratic owners, the transport princess of the 1700s had become the ugly sister in a matter of a few short decades.
Market forces were again demanding the development of another invention in history. The covetous gaze of northern businessmen finally fell on metal tracks in mines. And why not? After all coal was the new gold. Heaps of crushed carbon were dragged from underground on metal tracks by donkeys before being emptied and rushed back down again. It was small scale but it worked. Between Stockton and Darlington carts were hauled by stationery engines at either end of short tracks then by horses in between. It was slow and laborious but it worked. The route between the two great northern cities involved hills, valleys and a deep stretch of marshland. It would also need an engine that would move with it’s carts. It was large scale but it could work.
A joint stock company dedicated to creating the railway was created May 1823 with investors from London, Liverpool and Manchester. It took three years to finally ‘convince’ the landowners on whose property the railway would cut through and enough members of parliament to support the bill through a vote before work could finally start.
It was on the shoulders of George Stephenson that the mammoth task was placed. He designed the smooth railway which would roll over the bog at Chat Moss, a viaduct at Sankey Valley and a two mile tunnel through rock at Olive Mount. Once this neared completion much debate centred upon what kind of engine would carry the freight and passengers along the line. Conventional thought pointed to the use of stationery engines at the end of line to drag the carts, but this was not a conventional project. Engineers asked for the chance to prove that a fast-moving engine could travel along the tracks instead.
It was finally decided to stage a competition for perspective locomotives. Each had to pull a load three times its own weight at a speed of at least 10 mph. This was to be held at Rainhill and the lucky winner would receive £500 and the honour of their invention being used on the railway. The clear victor was ‘The Rocket’ designed by George Stephenson. It was a simple design of a boiler with several tubes to heat up the water. Once boiling the pressure of the steam turned the wheels. Though not by any means efficient this machine certainly was effective.
Eleven months later the great railway opened to huge fanfare at both ends of the line and indeed the social spectrum. The political and landed classes gathered alongside working men and women to witness history. Though disaster struck as William Huskinson, a Liverpudlian MP, crossed the track to supposedly apologise to the Prime Minister Lord Wellington for a drunken remark the night before. Not hearing the approaching train on it’s first ever journey, he was struck and his legs crushed. The locomotive carried him to hospital where he died later that day. Rather bizarrely an Athenian style statue of him resides in a quiet corner of Pimlico.
The railway became a huge success. In it’s first year it carried almost half a million passengers not to mention thousands upon thousands of tons of industrial produce. Behind the scenes investors could not contain their delight as their shares regularly paid out a 10% annual dividend. The word was out; railways were in. With laws restricting the number of people permitted to invest in companies relaxed, investors from the landed gentry to the expanding middle classes threw their money into what became known as ‘iron horses’. Although there was considerable opposition to each projet, within twenty years thousands of miles of track zigzagged the country from Cardiff to Kent, Ealing to Edinburgh.
Perhaps the greatest impact of the revolution was the effect on regular people. The world felt like it had shrunk, well at least Britain did. Before the arrival of trains it took almost two weeks to get from London to Edinburgh – now it took six hours. Each town had had it’s own time zone however due to the confusion of timetables these were now co-ordinated by the picturesque London suburb of Greenwich. National sporting leagues were created as teams and their adoring fans could travel the length and breadth of the land for matches yet return home for work. And of course rules needed to be agreed upon so the likes of the FA and RFU were created. Families who would rarely leave their neighbourhood, village or town could now afford holidays courtesy of cheap rail travel.
The first railway had been created to whet the appetite of some industry owners in the north east yet it’s impact appeared to benefit all of society. The theory of capitalism which stated that people striving for their own gain without government interference would help all seemed to be coming true. However within decades millions lived in abject poverty and danger across the industrial cities of Europe with practically no chance of getting a foot on the bottom rung of society’s ladder which seemed eternally out of reach. The Liverpool and Manchester railway symbolised the greatness of the ingenuity of man yet also how this greed could exclude the masses from ever truly profiting from it.