The History of Railroad Technology

From Greek Trackways to Tomorrow's Hyperloop Trains

German soldiers in a railway car on the way to the front in August 1914.
German soldiers in a railway car on the way to the front in August 1914. Public Domain

Since their invention, railroads have played a huge role in further developing civilizations around the world. From ancient Greece to modern-day America, railroads have changed the way humans travel and work.

The earliest form of rail transportation actually dates back to 600 B.C. The Greeks made grooves in paved limestone roads to use in conjunction with wheeled vehicles, easing the transport of boats across the Isthmus of Corinth. However, when Romans conquered the Greeks in 146 B.C., early railways fell into ruin and disappeared for more than 1,400 years.

The first modern rail transport system did not make a return until the 16th century. Even then, it would be another three hundred years before the invention of the steam locomotive would transform rail transportation on a global scale. 

The First Modern Railways

The precursors to modern trains debuted in the early 1550s in Germany with the introduction of wagonways. These primitive railed roads consisted of wooden rails over which horse-drawn wagons or carts were able to move with greater ease than over dirt roads. By the 1770s, wooden rails had been replaced with iron ones. These wagonways evolved into tramways that spread across Europe. In 1789, Englishman William Jessup designed the first wagons with flanged wheels that were grooved, allowing the wheels to better grip the rail. This important design feature was carried forward to later locomotives.

Until the 1800s, railways were constructed of cast-iron. Unfortunately, cast-iron was prone to rust and it was brittle, often causing it to fail under stress. In 1820, John Birkinshaw invented a more durable material called wrought-iron. This innovation, although an improvement over cast-iron was still flawed, however, it became the standard until the advent of the Bessemer process enabled the cheaper production of steel in the late 1860s, sparking the rapid expansion of railways not only across America but around the world. Eventually, the Bessemer process was replaced by the use of open-hearth furnaces, which further reduced the cost of steel production and allowed trains to connect most major cities in the United States by the end of the 19th century.

The Industrial Revolution and the Steam Engine

With the groundwork laid out for an advanced system of railways, all that was left to do was find a means to transport more people and more goods for more lengthy distances over a shorter period of time. The answer came in the form of one of the most significant inventions of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine, which was critical to the development of the modern railroad and trains.

In 1803, a man named Samuel Homfray decided to fund the development of a steam-powered vehicle to replace the horse-drawn carts on the tramways. Richard Trevithick built that vehicle, the first steam engine tramway locomotive. On February 22, 1804, the locomotive hauled a load of 10 tons of iron, 70 men, and five extra wagons the nine miles between the ironworks at Pen-y-Darron in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, to the bottom of Abercynnon valley. The trip took about two hours to complete.

In 1812, English inventor George Stephenson became a colliery engineer for the Stockton and Darlington Railway Line. By 1814, he'd built his first locomotive for them. Not long after, he convinced the owners to try out a steam-powered locomotive. The first effort was named the Locomotion. While Stephenson is credited as the inventor of the first steam locomotive engine for railways, Trevithick's invention is cited as the first tramway locomotive.

In 1821, Englishman Julius Griffiths became the first person to patent a passenger road locomotive. By September 1825, using Stephenson's locomotives, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company launched the first railroad to carry both goods and passengers traveling on regular schedules. These new trains could pull six loaded coal cars and 21 passenger cars with a capacity of 450 passengers over nine miles in about an hour.

Not long after that, Stephenson opened his own firm built, Robert Stephenson and Company. His most famous prototype, Stephenson’s Rocket, was designed and built for the Rainhill Trials, an 1829 event held by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway to choose the best design to power their new locomotives. The Rocket, the most advanced locomotive of its day, won handily and went on to set the standard by which most steam engines would be built for the next 150 years.

The American Railroad System

Colonel John Stevens is considered to be the father of railroads in the United States. In 1826, Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on an experimental circular track constructed at his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey—three years before Stephenson perfected a practical steam locomotive in England.

Stevens was granted the first railroad charter in North America in 1815 but others began to receive grants and work began on the first operational railroads soon after. In 1930, Peter Cooper designed and built the first American-built steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb, to be operated on a common-carrier railroad.

Another major train innovation of the 19th century didn't have anything to do with propulsion or power supply. Instead, it was all about passenger comfort. George Pullman invented the Pullman Sleeping Car in 1857. Although sleeping cars had been in use on American railroads since the 1830s, the Pullman car was designed specifically for overnight passenger travel and was considered a marked improvement over its predecessors.

The Drawbacks of Steam Power

While steam-powered locomotives had an undeniable impact on transportation and economic expansion over the course of the 19th century, the technology was not without its drawbacks. One of the most problematic was the smoke that resulted from burning coal and other fuel sources.

While the noxious byproducts were tolerable in open countryside, even early on, the hazards created by fuel exhaust became all the more apparent as railroads encroached on more populated areas, which in turn, necessitated a growing number of underground tunnels to accommodate trains headed for urban destinations. In a tunnel situation, smoke could turn lethal, especially if a train got stuck below ground. Trains powered by electricity seemed an obvious alternative but early electric train technology simply couldn't keep up with steam for long distances.

Electric Locomotives Get a Slow Start

The first prototype for an electric locomotive was built in 1837 by Scottish chemist Robert Davidson, powered by galvanic battery cells. Davidson’s next locomotive, a larger version named the Galvani, debuted at the Royal Scottish Society of Arts Exhibition in 1841. It weighed seven tons, had two direct-drive reluctance motors that used fixed electromagnets acting on iron bars attached to wooden cylinders on each axle. While it was tested on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in September of 1841, the limited power of its batteries scuttled the project. The Galvani was later destroyed by railroad workers who viewed the alternative technology as a potential threat to their livelihoods.

The brainchild of Werner von Siemens, the first electric passenger train, consisting of a locomotive and three cars, made its maiden run in 1879 in Berlin. The train had a maximum speed of just over eight miles per hour (13 km). Over the course of four months, it transported 90,000 passengers on a 984-foot (300-meter) circular track. The train's 150-volt direct current was supplied via an insulated third rail.

Electric tram lines began gaining popularity, first in Europe and later in the United States, after the first made its appearance in 1881 in Lichterfelde just outside Berlin, Germany. By 1883 an electric tram was running in Brighton, England and the tram that launched service near Vienna, Austria, the same year was the first in regular service to be powered by an overhead line. Five years later, electric trolleys designed by Frank J. Sprague (an inventor who’d once worked for Thomas Edison) took to the tracks for the Richmond Union Passenger Railway. 

The Transition for Steam to Electric

The first underground electric rail line was launched by the City and South London Railway in 1890. Five years later, Sprague came up with a game-changing multiple-unit traction control system (MU) for trains. Each car was equipped with its a traction motor and motor-controlled relays. All the cars drew power from the front of the train and the traction motors worked in unison. The MUs got their first practical installation for the South Side Elevated Railroad (now part of the Chicago L) in 1897. With the success of Sprague’s invention, electricity soon took over as the power supply of choice for subways.

In 1895, a four-mile stretch of the Baltimore Belt Line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) that connected to the New York became the first American main rail line to be electrified. Steam locomotives pulled up to the south end of the electrified line, and were then coupled to electric-powered trains and pulled through the tunnels that surrounded Baltimore.

New York City was one of the earliest to ban steam engines from their train tunnels. In the aftermath of a 1902 Park Avenue tunnel collision, the use of smoke-generating locomotives was outlawed south of the Harlem River. The New York Central Railroad started using electric locomotives by 1904. Beginning in 1915, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad electrified service across the Rocky Mountains and to the West Coast. By the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad had electrified its entire territory east of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

With the advent of diesel-powered trains in the 1930s and the following decades, the expansion of infrastructure for electric-powered trains slowed. Eventually, however, diesel and electric power would be combined to create several generations of electro-diesels and hybrids that employed the best of both technologies and would go on to become the standard for many railway lines.

Advanced Train Technologies

In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was considerable interest in the possibility of building passenger trains that could travel much faster than conventional trains. From the 1970s, interest in an alternative high-speed technology centered on magnetic levitation, or maglev, in which cars ride on an air cushion created by the electromagnetic reaction between an onboard device and another embedded in its guideway.

The first high-speed rail ran between Tokyo and Osaka in Japan and opened in 1964. Since then, many more such systems have been built around the world, including in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Belgium, South Korea, China, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan. The United States has also discussed installing a high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles and on the East Coast between Boston and Washington, D.C.

Electric engines and advancements in train transport technologies have since allowed humans to travel at speeds of up to 320 miles per hour. Even more advancements in these machines are in the developmental stages, including the Hyperloop tube train, projected to reach speeds close to 700 miles per hour, which completed its first successful prototype test run in 2017.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Railroad Technology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The History of Railroad Technology. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Railroad Technology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).