Of all the great modern innovations, the railroad may well be the one to which historians have accorded the most dramatic and far-reaching influence. No sooner had the first passenger railroads begun operations in England and the United States, around 1830, than the public was seized by what was called, even then, “railroad mania.” For ten or fifteen years the press kept up the excitement with stories about every imaginable aspect of the new machine, and practitioners of the popular arts contributed songs and pictures, poems and fictions, to the hubbub. The prevailing tone was enthusiastic, not to say celebratory, and the hearts of speculators in land and mines and railroads were made glad.
The new steam machine was as great a source of astonishment then as the computer is today. It could pull more weight faster than people had thought possible; it was mechanically and visually arresting; and it almost immediately began to change prevailing conceptions of time, space, and history. The railroad evoked a widely shared sense that an almost magical enhancement of human power was about to take place.
The more historians have learned about the changes caused by the railroad, the less manic, the more reasonable or at least understandable, that initial mania has come to seem. They remind us that the steam-powered locomotive was the first important innovation in overland transportation since before the time of Julius Caesar, and many economic historians have depicted the railroad as one of the chief pivots on which the industrial revolution turned. Before large-scale production could be profitable, farmers and manufacturers had to gain access to much larger markets. Earlier the new canals and steamboats had begun to enlarge the geographical scope of domestic markets, but it was the railroad that made it feasible to ship goods long distances over land.
Then, too, the unprecedented scale of railroading demanded an entirely new kind of business organization. It required precise scheduling, a foolproof network of communications, and many workers with special skills on duty all along the line twenty-four hours a day: it was more like a military organization than the old-style family-owned, family-run firm. As Alfred Chandler has shown, railroading, more than any other industry, called forth the new kind of large, impersonal, hierarchical firm run by specially trained professional managers. No technology did more to hasten the rationalization and bureaucratization of business, or the overall transition to a highly centralized form of corporate capitalism.
To the cultural historian, however, the railroad owed much of its impact to its unique symbolic properties. By the 1830s there was a widespread awareness that social change was rapidly accelerating, but the change did not yet have a generally accepted name, much less an explanation. Most of the words and catch phrases we now use to designate the great transition to modernity—industrial revolution, industrialization, the rise of industrial capitalism, urbanization, rationalization, mechanization, modernization, etc.—either had not yet been coined or had not yet won currency. To read widely in …