The Evolution of Railroad Technology With A
Comparison to the Evolution of the Automobile and the Radio
The first steam locomotive to run on rails was built by Richard
Trevithick in 1803. It could haul 20 tons at a speed of 5 miles per hour
and it is know to have hauled a load of about 9 tons.
Richard Trevithick's Locomotive, 1803
The "Father of American Railroads" was Colonel John Stevens of
Hoboken, New Jersey. As early as 1811 he proposed building a railroad in
New Jersey and in 1815 and in 1819 made further proposals but he could not
obtain the necessary financing. In 1825 he decided to prove, at his
own expense, that railroads and locomotives were a
practical possibility. Consequently he built a small circular railway on
his Hoboken estate and had a locomotive built that ran on it. Finally,
in 1830 Stevens and his sons Robert L. and Edwin A. were granted a charter
for the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation
John Stevens' Locomotive, 1825
John Stevens' Circular Track and Locomotive, 1825
The Stourbridge Lion was ordered by
Horatio Allen for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company (still in
business as the Delaware & Hudson Railroad). It was built in
Stourbridge, England and shipped to the U.S. in 1829 where it was run on
the D & H tracks on 8 August 1829. The intent was to use it to haul coal
from Carbondale to Honesdale, PA. However, it proved to be too heavy
for the existing trestles and was never used for that purpose.
The Lion cost $3000. It weighed 7 tons and had vertical cylinders,
all wheels being coupled. The wheels were of oak with iron tires and
"grasshopper" beams were used to transmit the power to them from the
The Stourbridge Lion: Delaware & Hudson Canal
Horatio Allen was appointed chief engineer of the Charleston
& Hamburg Railroad in 1829 shortly after he piloted the Stourbridge
Lion on the D & H. He recommended that only steam be used for traction
on the C & H and the first locomotive purchased by the railroad under his
supervision was the The Best Friend of
Charleston. The locomotive was built in New York and shipped
by sea to South Carolina. It was tested in November and December of 1830
and was the first locomotive in America to pull cars (14 December 1830).
The locomotive weighed 4.5 tons with cylinders sized 6 by 16 inches, a 54
inch diameter driving wheel, a steam pressure of 50 pounds, and a tractive
effort of 400 pounds.
The Best Friend of Charleston: Charleston &
Hamburg Railroad, 1830
In October 1830 Robert Stevens, President and Chief Engineer of the
Camden & Amboy Railroad went to England to purchase rails and a
locomotive for the company. On the passage he invented the "T" rail
(see below) and
the hook-headed spike for fastening it -- both are still in use today.
Stevens commissioned the construction of
The John Bull by George and
Robert Stephenson and it was shipped to Philadelphia from England in 1831.
Stevens hired Isaac Dripps, a young
mechanic, to take charge and assemble the engine. Dripps had never seen
a locomotive and had no drawings or measurements to guide him. Nevertheless,
he was able to assemble the engine. Since no tender had been supplied, Dripps
made a four-wheeled car and fastened a whiskey cask to the platform
(this was the first tender).
A leather pipe connected the cask to the engine. On 12 November 1831 the
members of the New Jersey legislature were the first passengers to be
hauled by the John Bull. The engine did not go into regular service until
1833 when there was enough trackage for the C & A to begin operations. When
the John Bull went into service Dripps modified the
locomotive so that it had a play in the leading
axle which enabled it to handle curves better. Later he invented the two-wheeled
"cow catcher" on the front of the locomotive which not only
helped the locomotive navigate curves but also helped with stray cows on
The John Bull: Camden &
Amboy Railroad, 1831
The John Bull: Camden &
Amboy Railroad, 1833
The Essex was built for the Morris
& Essex Railroad in 1838 by Seth Boyden of Newark, New Jersey. The locomotive
had a tender, 4 pilot wheels, and driving wheels at the rear of the engine.
The locomotive weighed 6 tons with 8.5 by 26 inch cylinders and 53.5 inch
driving wheels. With the addition of a cab for the engineer and fireman and
a cowcatcher on the front, this is a standard steam locomotive.
The Essex: Morris &
Essex Railroad, 1838
Matthias Baldwin invented the
flexible-beam truck or
six-wheels-connected engine in
1842. His aim was to use all the locomotive's weight for traction.
With this arrangement, the two front pairs of wheels could move
laterally, their axles working in cylindrical, vertical pedestals. The
pedestals were held by beams which could move independently of each other
and of the engine's main frame. The rear pair of drivers was mounted
in the conventional way and coupling rods connected all the wheels. This
design permitted operation on curves without binding any of the wheels.
Baldwin's Six-Wheels-Connected Engine, 1842
The first "ten wheeler" or 4-6-0 locomotive was
The Chesapeake. Designed by
Septimus Norris it was built in 1847 for the Philadelphia and
Reading Railroad. It weighed 22 tons with 14.5 by 22 inch cylinders
and driving wheels 46 inches in diameter.
The Chesapeake: Philadelphia & Reading, 1847
The Irvington was the first coal
burner on the Hudson River Railroad. It was constructed by the
Lawrence Machine Shop of Lawrence, MA, in 1852. All the elements of the
standard steam locomotive are present in the design.
The Irvington: Hudson River Railroad, 1852
Railroad Roadbed and Track
The early railroad roadbeds and track were adapted from those
used in mining. Many early railroads used wooden beams surfaced with
strap iron for rails. Others used strap iron bars mounted on granite
By the late 1830s the standard roadbed and track had emerged. It was
quickly discovered through trial and error that railroad vehicles should
have single-flanged iron wheels with the flange on the inside of
the rail (simple physics -- with the flange on the outside the vehicle
tended to ride-up on the rail under a lateral force). The rails should be
solid rolled "T" iron mounted on wooden ties on top of a crushed stone
foundation. This provided cushioning as well as proper drainage.
The illustrations below were made by the great German engineer Franz Anton
von Gerstner. He traveled throughout the U.S. in 1839 examining in great
detail all the canals and railroads then in operation or under construction.
He made detailed engineering drawings of everything he had seen and wrote
highly detailed reports. These have been reprinted as Early
American Railroads, edited by Frederick C. Gamst, Stanford University
Press, Stanford, CA, 1997.
1839: Mohawk & Hudson 2.5" by 9/16" Strap
Saratoga & Schenectady 2.5" by 1/2" Strap
1839: Philadelphia & Columbia 41.25 lb Iron T Rail
Camden & Amboy 42 lb Iron T Rail
1839: Baltimore & Ohio 51 lb Iron T Rail
Below is an ad for switch plates from the November 1999 industry
journal Railway Gazette. Note that after more than 160 years
the basic rail is still the same.
1999: An Ad for Switch Plates
Below are the front and back covers to the November 1999
Railway Gazette. The front cover shows a machine that
removes, cleans, and replaces ballast, a job that used to require
several large crews of men.
The back cover shows a vendor of wheel sets. Note that the wheels and
axle are a single unit. Railroads discovered very early
on that this design kept the whole unit in guage much better than allowing
the wheels to rotate around a fixed axle. In addition, the single unit
wheel set made efficient bearings and lubrication possible.
1999: Front Cover of Railway Gazette
1999: Back Cover of Railway Gazette
The Evolution of the Automobile
Gottlieb Daimler (1834 - 1890) is generally credited
with building the first 4-wheeled automobile -- a horseless carriage. Daimler
was responsible for the engine (a greatly improved version pioneered by
Nikolaus August Otto [1832 - 1891]) but had another firm build the carriage which
The early cars did not have a gearing system so they were very slow -- less
than 10 mph. To gain road speed without increasing the speed of the engine,
gearing was necessary and it was Louis Renault (1877 - 1944) who produced
the first "gearbox" -- Gears in a box. In 1891 the French firm of Panhard and
Levassor obtained the rights to use Daimler's patents. In 1894 the Daimler
V-type two cylinder engine was incorporated in the first automobile
designed to place the driving elements in the same position that they occupy today
in most cars; the engine at the front, followed by a clutch, a gear box,
and a propellar shaft to a differential connected to live, driving axles on
either side, although these driving axles were individually connected to the
rear wheels by chains. Early French leadership in the industry is responsible
for common English terms such as
and even for the coined word
1886: The first 4-wheeled automobile. Engine built
by Gottlieb Daimler.
In the U.S., Charles and Frank Duryea brought out their horseless
carriage in 1892-93 and in 1894 they used a two cylinder motor. Elwood
Hayes and Elmer Apperson, of Kokomo, Indiana, ran their first horseless
carriage in 1894, and in 1896 Ransom E. Olds and Alexander Winton separately
built their own automobiles. Henry Ford built his first experimental car
in 1893 and his first practical model in 1896.
1892: The Duryea brothers construct the first
American cars. Below is an 1896 version.
1896: Henry Ford's First Car
1896: Henry Ford at the Wheel of his First Car
1907: Henry Ford's Model T goes into Production --
this is the 1913 Model on Display at the Smithsonian
In 1911 Charles F. Kettering (1876 -1958) perfected the electric
self-starter and it was introduced by Cadillac in 1912. One of the most
important inventions in history, it led to a social revolution.
Kettering was a mechanical genius. While he worked for NCR he invented
the electric cash register among other less well known business inventions.
These formed the basis for NCR's highly profitable business. After NCR,
he invented the modern battery ignition system for the automobile, the
storage battery that could be recharged as the engine ran (he founded
DELCO about this time), four-wheel brakes, ethyl gasoline, faster
drying automobile paint, freon, and the Diesel locomotive.
1911: Charles F. Kettering perfects the Self-Starter
By World War I, front bumpers,
electric horns, rear-view mirrors, foot pedal accelerators, V-8 engines,
and overdrive had all appeared. The technology had gelled and the
modern car had emerged.
1915 Mercer: A Recognizably Modern Car
The Evolution of Radio
The Electromagnetic Spectrum
The Electromagnetic Spectrum: Wavelength vs.
Frequency in Hertz (Cycles)
The Wavelengths of Visible Light
Violet: 0.4 - 0.446 mm
Blue: 0.446 - 0.500 mm
Green: 0.500 - 0.578 mm
Yellow: 0.578 - 0.592 mm
Orange: 0.592 - 0.620 mm
Red: 0.620 - 0.7 mm
Many discoveries in the field of electricity were necessary
before the concept of radio was possible. One of the most important of
these was the work of Michael Faraday. In 1821 Faraday plotted the magnetic
field around a conductor carrying an electric current. In 1831 he followed
this accomplishment with the discovery of
Electromagnetic Induction. Faraday
demonstrated the induction of one electric current by another.
Michael Faraday (1791 - 1867)
The history of radio really begins with the publication in 1873 of
Treatise of Electricity and Magnetism
by James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell built upon the work of Faraday but his
insights were extraordinary. Around 1865 Maxwell developed his
electromagnetic theory of light. Maxwell saw light as consisting of
transverse waves of electric and magnetic force and had come to this
conclusion by explaining electromagnetic induction mathematically. He
calculated that the velocity of the induced electric waves was the same as
the speed of light. He then realized
that there was no set lmit to the wave length (frequency) of these
waves and he predicted the existence of other electromagnetic waves.
His theory also suggested the ability to create electromagnetic waves
All these insights were combined in Maxwell's famous four equations --
Gauss' Law for Electrostatics; Gauss' Law for Magnetostatics; Faraday's
Law; and Ampere's Law. The Maxwell equations allowed one to calculate
and predict the relationship between electricity and magnetism. It was
not until the development of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity
that the reasons for the relationships developed by Maxwell were
James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879)
Heinrich Hertz was the first person to demonstrate experimentally
the production and detection of Maxwell's waves. In 1887, using the spark
of an induction coil, Hertz succeeded in producing and detecting
electromagnetic waves. He showed experimentally that these waves possessed
many of the properties of light, i.e., measurable velocity and wave length,
reflection, refraction, and polarization. Hertz' demonstration of the
existence of electromagnetic waves was originally of purely theoretical
interest as confirmation of Maxwell's theory of the electromagnetic
nature of electricity and light, but his discoveries led directly to the
development of radio.
Heinrich Hertz (1857 - 1894)
Guglielmo Marconi is generally credited with the invention of
radio -- wireless transmission of a message. Around 1895 he developed
an improved coherer -- a glass tube
loosely filled with zinc and silver filings. The device was originally
invented by Joseph Lodge and was used to detect radio waves. The coherer
would become conductive in the presence of a strong radio wave. The
coherer was the earliest true radio receiver. Marconi hooked the
coherer to a crude antenna with its lower end grounded. He also
improved the spark oscillator -- the earliest true radio
transmitter -- and hooked it to an antenna. He used a telegraph key
to turn the spark oscillator on and off thereby sending out a message
to the antenna hooked to the coherer. The coherer actuated a telegraphic
instrument through a relay.
In 1896 Marconi succeeded in sending a message over a distance of 1 mile
and by 1897 was able to send messages to a ship at sea 18 miles distant.
In 1901 he sent messages over a distance of 200 miles and by 1902 across
the Atlantic ocean.
Guglielmo Marconi (1874 - 1937)
The Basic Spark Transmitter
The Basic Receiver
The early spark equipment could only be used to send and receive
For voice to be transmitted the vacuum tube was necessary
because voice required amplification and much more sophisticated
detection. The original vacuum tube was developed by Thomas Edison. He
discovered that a current will flow between the hot filament of an incandescent
lamp and another electrode placed in the lamp and that this current will
flow in only one direction. In 1904 John Fleming developed the
diode, or two-element tube. This tube
was used as a detector, rectifier, and limiter.
A key advance in the history of radio and the beginnings of the science
of electronics ("computers" are an
application of electronics), was the creation of
the triode tube by Lee De Forest in
1906. Although some claim that Reginald Fessenden was the real inventor
and De Forest stole the design, nevertheless De Forest patented the design
in 1906. The breakthrough was the addition of a grid between the
filament and the plate. This made the triode an
amplifier and made voice transmission
and reception possible.
Lee De Forest (1873 - 1961)
1904 Radio Installation (Location Unknown)
1905 Radio Installation in Puerto Rico
Edwin Howard Armstrong is the man who took De Forest's triode and
turned it into a practical amplifier and
oscillator with his invention of the
regenerative circuit in 1913. One
year later Armstrong invented the
superheterodyne circuit that made
modern tube radios practical devices. A superheterodyne receiver is based
upon the fact that it is possible to mix two oscillating currents of
different frequencies to produce a "beat" current whose frequency is
equal to the difference between the two. This was a fundamental discovery
and broadcast radio was a reality by the early 1920s. Armstrong would later
go on to invent FM radio transmission in 1933.
Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890 - 1954)
Multiple Inventors of Original Technology -- Near Simultaneous Emergence
of the same technology in several different locations.
Rapid Incremental Improvements
"Mature" Technology After 20 Years Followed
by a Long Period of Relative Technological Stability