The History of the Railroad

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 "railroads" actually dates back to 600 B.C. The Greeks made grooves in paved limestone roads so that they could use wheeled vehicles to ease transport of boats across the Isthmus of Corinth. However, with the fall of Greece to Rome in 146 B.C., these early railways fell into ruin and disappeared for over 1,400 years.

Not until the 16th century would the first modern rail transport system make a reappearance—and then it was another three centuries before the steam locomotive was invented—but this unique form of transportation truly changed the world. 

The First Modern Railways

Railroads made an appearance in the modern world in the early 1550s when Germany began installing roads of rails called wagonways to make it easier for horse-drawn wagons or carts to cross the countryside. These primitive railed roads consisted of wooden rails over which horse-drawn wagons or carts moved with greater ease than over dirt roads.

By the 1770s, iron had replaced the wood in the rails and wheels on the carts used on wagonways, which then evolved into tramways that spread across Europe. In 1789, Englishman William Jessup designed the first wagons with flanged wheels, which had grooves that allowed the wheels to better grip the rail and was an important design that carried over to later locomotives.

Although railway construction used cast iron up until the 1800s, John Birkinshaw invented a more durable material called wrought iron in 1820. Wrought iron was then used for rail systems until the advent of the Bessemer process that enabled the cheaper production of steel in the late 1860s, sparking the rapid expansion of railways across America and other countries around the world.

Eventually, the Bessemer process was replaced by the use of open-hearth furnaces, which further reduced the cost and allowed trains to connect most major cities in the United States by the end of the 19th century.

With the groundwork laid out for an advanced system of railways, all that was left to do was invent a means that could carry more people longer distances faster—which all happened during the Industrial Revolution with the invention of the steam engine.

The Industrial Revolution and the Steam Engine

The invention of the steam engine was critical to the invention 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 (1771–1833) 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 the valley called Abercynnon, taking about two hours to complete the trip.

In 1821, Englishman Julius Griffiths was the first person to patent a passenger road locomotive, and in September 1825, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company began as the first railroad to carry both goods and passengers on regular schedules using locomotives designed by English inventor George Stephenson. These new trains could pull six loaded coal cars and 21 passenger cars with 450 passengers over 9 miles in about one hour.

Stephenson is considered to be the inventor of the first steam locomotive engine for railways—while Trevithick's invention is considered the first tramway locomotive, which is a road locomotive, designed for a road and not for a railroad.

In 1812, Stephenson became a colliery engine builder and in 1814 built his first locomotive for the Stockton and Darlington Railway Line, where he was hired as the company engineer. He soon convinced the owners to use steam motive power and built the line's first locomotive, the Locomotion. In 1825, Stephenson moved to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, where, together with his son Robert, he built the Rocket.

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 a circular experimental track constructed on 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 to be operated on a common-carrier railroad known as the Tom Thumb.

George Pullman invented the Pullman Sleeping Car in 1857, which was designed for overnight passenger travel, although sleeping cars were being used on American railroads since the 1830s. However, early sleepers were not that comfortable, and the Pullman Sleeper was a marked improvement on the standard.

Advanced Train Technologies

In the 1960s and early 1970s, there was considerable interest in the possibility of building tracked passenger vehicles that could travel much faster than conventional trains. From the 1970s, interest in an alternative high-speed technology centered on magnetic levitation, or maglev, where 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 development process, including the Hyperloop tube train, which is planned to reach speeds of up to 700 miles per hour.