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Trains and Railroads

The Steam Locomotive, The First Locomotives, The American Standard, Diesel And Electric Locomotives, Track

Trains were developed during the Industrial Revolution and were arguably that period's most important product. In many ways railroads made the Industrial Revolution possible. Factories could not run without a constant supply of raw materials, or without a method of moving goods to market. More than anything, the progress of the railroads depended on the development of motive power, which was, in turn, being driven by technology. If the story of the Industrial Revolution is the story of the railroads, then, the story of the railroads is the story of technology.

Like so much else in western culture, railroads had their roots in ancient Greece. Farmers and merchants transporting goods realized that their wagons could travel more quickly on a smooth, hard surface with its reduced friction than on soft dirt roads. Where possible, they cut ruts into the rock to guide the wagon wheels. These rutways were limited to areas where the rock was near the surface, but the efficiency of the approach was demonstrated.

The rutway technology was submerged in the full-width Roman roads and lost in the eventual fall of the empire. In the late Middle Ages, however, a variation of the idea surfaced. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Germany and England, primitive railway systems were developed in which wood-wheeled carts ran on wooden rails. These early lines were developed primarily for heavy industry such as coal mining, to make large volume transport viable. The ascents were made using horsepower and the descents were made with the benefit of gravity, brakes, and a few prayers. The reduced friction of the wagonways allowed horses to haul several times the load they could manage on a normal road, and the rails guided the wagons along.

These wooden rail systems had a number of disadvantages. When wet they were extremely slippery, causing the carts to slide out of control on grades. They were not particularly strong or durable. In particular, carts with iron wheels quickly wore out the soft wooden tracks. In 1767, Richard Reynolds of Coalbrookdale, England, fabricated the first iron rails. The metal rails reduced the rolling friction of the wheels while lasting longer than the wooden alternatives. The way was clear for motive power.

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