Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review of Christopher McGowan's "Rail, Steam, and Speed"

We celebrate, with justification, the proud heritage that the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad has given to America’s history. Genius, entrepreneurship, innovation, etc.—the marks of the pioneers—give us a sense of being at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. But then reality comes and splashes cold water in our face. Christopher McGowan, in his Rail, Steam, and Speed (Columbia University Press, New York, 2004) has delivered a jet stream. McGowan‘s book relates the remarkable story of the real birth of the age of railroads that took place in Britain, decades before the American age. His storyline centers around the famous “Rainhill trials” of October, 1829, its participants, the descriptions and performances of competing locomotives, and the preceding triumphs and tragedies leading up to the trials. And along the way he provides marvelous insight into the men of the trials; insight into the same traits that characterized the Americans who forged our age of locomotion. McGowan’s extensive resources and notes lend credibility to the book. His easy flowing narrative style lends pure enjoyment.

McGowan attributes the British initiative in scientific and engineering experimentation to the government’s policy of Laissez Faire, albeit imperfect and sometimes inconsistent, encouraged research and development and facilitated access to critical natural resources. To a degree, we can make the same deduction about America. Bureaucracy and instability, especially during the Napoleonic Age, inhibited the otherwise theoretically inclined French.

Robert Stephenson’s Rocket was declared the winner of the event, sponsored in order to select the type of locomotive to produce for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which began service in 1830. It was not an arbitrary decision to hold the trials in Rainhill, not far from Liverpool. [And, incidentally, it was the “modernized” L&M Railway that caught the attention of the Board of Directors of the B&O. A healthy and productive intellectual exchange took place, involving visits between Baltimore and Liverpool.]

The story really begins with James Watt’s rejection of high pressure steam engines as too dangerous to be practical. His c. 1764 work on improving the seminal low-pressure Newcomen engine, used mainly for pumping water from mines, led to his invention of an engine with a separate cylinder that connected to the main cylinder through a pipe. Spraying cold water into the smaller cylinder mitigated the need to cool down the main cylinder. Skipping ahead, Watt’s engine was successfully manufactured and marketed. The main market was in Cornwall. Watt’s engine caught the attention of Cornishman Richard Trevithick who, despite Watt’s warnings about high-pressure, developed a smaller reciprocating engine, taking advantage of the fact that high-pressure allowed reduction in the necessary stroke. This was ultimately implemented into the recognized first steam locomotive in the first years of the nineteenth century. But he concentrated on pumping engines and produced many versions, one incidentally named Ding Dong. Eventually Trevithick was lured into producing engines for precious metal mines in Peru, a venture which promised great wealth

The three most prominent contestants in the trials were:

(a) John Braithwaite and John Ericsson, builders of Novelty. The main feature was that two vertical sections were connected by a horizontal air pipe flowing into the “furnace” (fire box), allowing the air flow to be directly proportional to speed. And Novelty’s speed was at one trial calculated at 32 mph!

(b) Timothy Hackworth and his Sans Pareil. Weighing nearly five tons, it was about 600 pounds over the Rainhill’s judges limit. It was “penalized” by being assigned heavier loads to carry. Hackworth employed a “return-flue” boiler to increase the heating surface area. So the chimney [smokestack] and “furnace” (firebox) were at the same end, at the front of the locomotive. Coupling rods joined the front and rear wheels, the latter being connected to the pistons. This was effectively a four wheel-driven locomotive. [And a not very safe one, since the driver was given only a small plank to stand on, with no restraining bars.]

(c) Robert Stephenson—naturally with paternal assistance—and his Rocket were the ultimate winners The main innovation was the use of multiple flue tubes, to increase the heat transfer capability. It was by far the most powerful and well-built of the engines, thanks in part to the Stephenson work ethic and experience.

McGowan skillfully arranges his chapters into a thematic structure—preparing for the trials, the birth of locomotion, the participants, the trials, and the aftermath. His coverage of the participants stresses their motivations—competitiveness, money, social class expectation, etc. George Stephenson wanted to move beyond his Northumberland rusticity; but he had to live that through his son Robert’s upward mobility. Timothy Hackworth, a man of God, sacrificed precious time to observe the Sabbath.

Coverage of the trials itself does not fail in excitement and suspense, although we have known of the results for nearly two centuries. A feed pump failure led to a low water condition and near ‘meltdown’ before Hackworth’s Sans Pareil. Final humiliation for Hackworth occurred when the patched up engine was declared too heavy for the final trial. Boiler failures plagued John Braithwaite’s and John Ericsson’s Novelty, the crowd favorite.

So did Rocket win by default? Maybe, but history says “No”. Stephenson’s multi-tubular boiler design—dramatically increasing the surface area available for heat transfer—proved to be the prototype for the evolution of early nineteenth century locomotive design, including perhaps American Peter Cooper’s prototype later known as Tom Thumb. (It’s intriguing to this reviewer as to how knowledge of multi-tubular boiler got to Cooper so quickly, if indeed it did at all. Trans-Atlantic communications, i.e., post or hand-carrying, in 1829 and 1830 were not exactly timely. Did a witness to the trials pass the information to Cooper? Is there any correspondence? Some research is certainly warranted here. There is another item from the book of “local” interest. After earlier trial runs in September 1829, Rocket was returned to the Stephensons’ Killingworth shop for repairs. It was then dismantled for shipment from Carlisle to Liverpool. It’s worth quoting McGowan here: “Two locomotives, built for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, and a stationary engine for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, were finished at the same time. It was planned for Rocket to be loaded aboard their vessel, for shipment to Liverpool docks, but her departure was delayed. This was most fortunate because the ship was lost on the treacherous passage around the north coast of Scotland.” Unfortunately, McGowan’s notes are absent vis a vis this snippet.)

The book devotes more than passing coverage to Brunel and the “Gauge Wars”, civil engineering advances in building the railways—it is known, for example, that Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jr., chief engineer of the Thomas Viaduct, was familiar with George Stephenson’s Sankey Viaduct for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway—and the ultimate tragedies met by some in the opening years of the railway age.

1 comment:

Rafi said...

That's a mighty long blogpost to not have any links or pictures! Can we pick this up in the B&O gift shop?