October 1, 2009
The opening of the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830 marked the beginning of a revolution in transportation. Invented before electricity, gas for cooking, the telephone, the typewriter, or the bicycle, the railroad truly marked the dawn of a new age. In 1830, few people other than sailors and soldiers had traveled beyond the confines of their home-town. Fresh food was virtually unheard of in urban centers – as late as 1841 the milk supply of New York City came from evil-smelling, swill-fed cows kept in the city’s basements – and news and information traveled slowly, if at all. All of this would change within a generation. By 1880, there were 280,000 miles of railroad track across the world, and by the outbreak of World War I, the United States alone boasted over a quarter of a million miles. The birth of the railroads did nothing less than change the face of the whole world and the way people lived.
At first the impetus for railroad construction was clearly economic. Linking coal mines to ports and farms to cities created burgeoning new markets for goods. Yet construction of the iron roads grew to serve social and political goals. From China to Russia to New Zealand and the Indian subcontinent, railroads were built to subdue colonies or indigenous populations, to transport armies, to bypass unnavigable stretches of river, to conquer territory, and to build and unite nations in an increasingly post-colonial world.
In Blood, Iron, and Gold, transportation historian Christian Wolmar celebrates the vision and determination of the ambitious pioneers who developed the railroads that would one day span continents, as well as the efforts of the laborers who overcame horrific conditions to enable this global network to emerge. From steam to electrification, the rise of the train triggered daring engineering feats, great architectural innovation, and the rapid movement of people and goods across the globe. Wolmar shows how cultures were enriched, and destroyed, by the unrelenting construction of these railroad networks and how they quickly took on a vital role in the U.S. Civil War as well as in two world wars.
Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster specializing in the social history of railways and transport. He has written for major British newspapers for many years and has contributed to many other publications, including the New York Times and Newsday. He frequently appears on TV and radio as an expert commentator. His most recent books are The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London underground, the world’s oldest system, and Fire & Steam, the story of Britain’s railways.