Monday, February 03, 2014

Here's a Keeper: Railroads

Here's a keeper: Christian Wolmar, The Great Revolution: The History of Trains in America.  It's not particularly heavyweight, neither in doorstop nor in academic terms: the pitch is perhaps just a bit above American Heritage or The History Channel. But the virtue is that he seems to be interested in the stuff that interests me: the legal, structural and financial problems of getting, as you might say, the show on the road.  Among other things, I might just be forgetting but I don't recall any other railroad history that actually discusses eminent domain.

Two points in particular at the moment.  One, Wolmar does a wonderful job of reminding us how much of early railroad development and finance came direct from the state.  This shouldn't be a surprise: we know that the modern off-the-rack private corporation is largely an artifact of the 1830s, not before. But it is interesting to watch, say, small towns in the backward slaveholder south falling all over themselves to  assemble a rail project that will carry them (as the saying went) from "no place in particular to nowhere at all."  It would be interesting (but somebody has probably already done it) to drill down and compare "direct government enterprise" (on the one hand) with "private enterprise lubricated by wholesale corruption" on the other.  Reminds me of a point I was bemused by a couple of weeks ago: how into the 20C, there were serious people who just took it for granted that the manufacture of arms should be done by the government only--to important to be left to the market.

And two--Wolmar offers a fascinating spin on the phase during which rail projects went from being a local enterprise --"here to the river"--to being national in scope--"here to San Francisco," or at least Chicago  He poses the question--why didn't it happen sooner.  And he suggests: before rail, nobody thought in terms of  national transport.  Everything happened within 20 or 30 miles from home  People didn't sit around thinking, "if only somebody invented the railroad, we could get to San Francisco in a hurry."  Rather, they waited until after the technology existed and then said "hey wait--we could use this to get to San Francisco."  Another case, I suppose, of supply creating its own demand.  For extra credit, the student is invited to draw comparisons between this phenomenon in the rail era and parallel developments in the computer age.

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