History of the Railroad and Telegraph Binding the World

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

The history of the railroad indicates that it was initially accepted with a lot of skepticism. Doubters were anxious about its effect on human health and safety. But in spite of all this, how it was instrumental in binding the world together makes for an engrossing study.

People celebrating the completion of first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Many people celebrated the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.
(Image: Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer/Public domain)

It would be interesting to know how the two elements—railroad and telegraph—changed the comprehension of time and space. Before the first steam trains were developed and introduced in the early 19th century in Britain, the speed of traveling for people was limited to the speed of the horses that carried them. However, the history of the railroad indicates that after this travel accelerated considerably and achieved great speeds of movement.

But this achievement of speed also brought with it a significant amount of anxieties. The most common question was whether traveling at great speeds by railroad was healthy or proper. In the history of the railroad, accidents were common and they could be terrible also. The great writer Charles Dickins had himself survived one such accident. And apart from these accidents, there were other anxieties about the effects of such high speeds on human beings. Medical professionals identified a condition which they termed ‘Railway Spine’. This occurred due to damage by persistent jolting and jarring of the rail car. And anxieties arose about the effect of train travel on the nerves.

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The Other Viewpoint

In contradiction to this, some others celebrated the railroad as a symbol of civilization and growth.  The history of the railroad also shows a famous print by the American printmakers Currier and Ives with the title Across the Continents. This showed a train moving relentlessly forward from an urban setting into places that seemed wild—but it would not be long before this wilderness was lost. 

The effects of train travel and certain interpretations about time and space are still evident from the history of the railroad. One transformation that succeeded in the United States, as well as other countries of the world, was what was then termed “railroad time”. This meant standardizing the many different patterns of local timekeeping so as to match up to the schedule of the trains.

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The Change

In practice, the train station became an unquestionable temple showing the power of the railroad. The history of the railroad is replete with the instances of the whole cityscapes of town centers being brought down and rebuilt to clear the path for laying rail lines and building their magnificent terminals. These terminals were often designed like cathedrals made of glass and iron. For scores of people worldwide, the trains ultimately gave them a chance of long-distance travel.

Globally, railroads became an important means of binding spaces into unities. For example, the history of the railroad in British India was written when the British, in a bid to consolidate their hold on the subcontinent, connected it with railroads that were funded by British investment. The result was that by the year 1872, India already had more than 5,000 miles of railroad track.

Many other countries also hurried to make such big projects. Russia built what was the longest railway in the world in the 1890s called the Trans-Siberian Railroad. This railroad connected western Europe with eastern Asia. But the projects gave rise to animosity, too. The British got very anxious when Germany tried to finance and dominate a railroad project from Berlin to Baghdad. This led to the poisoning of the international climate leading up to World War I. 

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How the History of the Railroad is Linked to the Telegraph

The first telegraph message being received in 1851.
The Submarine Telegraph Company in London received their first message from Paris on the Foy-Breguet instrument in 1851. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Here, a mention of the telegraph is essential. The history of the railroad would be incomplete without it. When the transcontinental railroad was linked in the United States, there was a line of telegraph wires that ran parallel to it. This was done to facilitate instant communication. The traditional telegraph lines that strung across the continent were replaced by these wires. It immediately put the legendary Pony Express out of business.

Thanks to the telegraph, talking around the world in an instant became possible. When the city of Constantinople fell in the year 1453, the information of its seizure reached Rome after one month. On the contrary, the news of the completion of the transcontinental railroad was conveyed to Washington DC within moments.

The telegraph cables laid underwater also connected the world on the eve of the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the year 1865, an underwater cable was laid from Britain to India, and in the following year, another cable was laid from Britain to the United States. Jules Verne’s best selling novel, Around The World In Eighty Days, was inspired by the history of the railroad and the telegraph and all these changes that were happening in the world that were binding it together. Although Verne was called a master of science fiction, this story published in 1873 seemed quite believable.

Portrait of Phileas Fogg in outdoor dress standing in a carpeted room.
Phileas Fogg is the fictional character in Jules Verne’s best selling novel, Around The World In Eighty Days. (Image: Alphonse de Neuville (1835-1885)/Public domain)

This was a story about Phileas Fogg, a British man from London, and his servant who, under a bet made at Fogg’s club, set out to travel around the world. They have many adventures during their journey, passing through the Suez Canal, then moving to British India and then through Hongkong. After Hong Kong, they travel on the transcontinental railroad across North America. Eventually, when they return to London, they believe they have lost the bet but, at the last moment, they realize that they have, in fact, saved one day due to traveling in different time zones.

But think of it, if they had traveled some 20 years earlier, in the pre-Suez Canal and transcontinental railroad days, it would have taken them about 11 months to complete the journey instead of 80 days. In short, 1869 was a significant year in binding the world together. The history of travel and communication changed drastically due to the history of the railroad, the Suez Canal, and the telegraph. There was an amazing increase in the speed of movement and communication and it totally changed the perception of the ordinary people about time and space.

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Common Questions About the Railroad and Telegraph

Q: How was the construction of the railroads important?

The making of railroads was one of the most significant events during the industrial revolution. They brought about a deep social, economic, and political change.

Q: How was the economy in the United States impacted by the railroads?

With the construction of the railroads, the factories in the east could receive the raw materials quickly and the finished products could reach all parts of the United States in a time-bound manner.

Q: How did telegraph help the railroads?

The railroads used the telegraph a lot to make communication between distant stations easy and quick. With the help of the telegraph, the railroads could operate more smoothly.

Q: What was the impact of the telegraph on the economy?

The exchange of information, which was so vital for the growth of the economy, was made much quicker by the telegraph. So the telegraph greatly influenced the creation of more efficient markets.

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