- A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825–1862
The late Craig Miner, the Willard Garvey Professor of Business History at Wichita State University, has produced another notable work with the publication of A Most Magnificent Machine. During his lengthy career, Miner established himself as the “dean of Kansas history” and engaged a broad range of topics ranging from the frontier experience, political conflict and the Civil War, business and entrepreneurship, and innovations in technology. In this book, Miner takes a unique approach in exploring how the invention and prolific expansion of the railroad completely transformed American life. As Miner clearly states in his preface, this [End Page 215] work is not about the railroad as an engineering marvel, but about how the railroad dramatically changed business and social development. Perhaps more importantly, Miner’s exhaustive research in newspapers, articles, books and pamphlets provides keen insight into how the railroad captured the American imagination and transformed how Americans viewed themselves and their place in the world.
Miner’s book begins with a vivid description of America’s first railroad, the Mauch Chunk and Quincy Railroad in Massachusetts. From the beginning, it became a central topic of discussion and ultimately something of a tourist attraction. From these humble beginnings, railroad entrepreneurs developed new business and commercial models, labor policies, fuel technologies, and marketing plans. During the first phase of railroad expansion, Miner notes, champions of the railroad competed with advocates of additional canal construction for private and public support. The ultimate triumph of the railroad was a product of not only a transformative technology, but in the ability of railroad entrepreneurs to challenge strong anti-corporate rhetoric in many states by exciting the popular imagination about the endless possibilities for economic development promised by the railroad.
A Most Magnificent Machine covers some familiar ground in the history of the American railroad. As Miner notes in graphic detail, American railroads had an abysmal safety record compared to European ones. Miner concludes that this was due, in large part, to Americans’ desire for speed of travel over any changes in training or safety procedures that would lead to travel delays. Similarly, Miner vividly captures the competitive spirit of communities around the country that competed with one another for access to rail transportation. This was particularly true of communities seeking to capitalize on commerce and trade in America’s interior, which was not well served by canal or river transportation.
Perhaps Miner’s most significant contribution is in effectively challenging the notion that the South lacked the same passion and enthusiasm for the railroad that existed in other parts of the country. Southern cities, like their counterparts in the Northeast and Midwest, launched their own efforts to develop trade and commerce in the interior using rail as the chief mode of transport. The barrier to Southern rail development was not a lack of public enthusiasm for this new technology, but political opposition to utilize public money or grants of land to provide investment capital for private railroad companies. The prevailing policy in the South, observed a North Carolina newspaper editord, forced the South “to build our roads, whilst the anti-slavery States have roads built for them” (186).
A Most Magnificent Machine is crisply written and meticulously researched. It is not a conventional business or technology history, but a history of the interaction of a technology and public opinion as revealed in the popular media of the day. Although there were many detractors of this new technology and the social and economic changes that it wrought, most Americans by the 1850s viewed the railroad as a positive good that represented the single most important technological development in their lifetime. As the writer for the New York Daily Times summarized in 1853, “It (the railroad) invited the wealth and labor of the nation to transform two simple tracks into an agent of civilization and Christianity.” [End Page 216]