Around 1800, steam began to replace water as the main source of power for factories. The steam engine revolutionized industry. For the first time, factories did not need to be located near running water to power their machines. Industrialists began to build factories in urban centers, where it was easier to find labor.
The first version of the steam engine had been patented in 1698 by the Englishman Thomas Savery (c. 1650–1715). The design had been significantly improved by British inventors Thomas Newcomen 1664–1729) in the first decade of the eighteenth century and James Watt (1736–1819) in the 1770s and 1780s. Steam engines, powered by coal, paved the way for the Industrial Revolution (1750–1850) by replacing animal and human power with machines. The improvements by Watt, in particular, allowed for the adaptation of the steam engine to a variety of industrial machines; Watt’s engine was, however, too large and of insufficient pressure to run steam-powered vehicles.
The Industrial Revolution made the problem of how to transport goods from the factories to the customers one of great concern for manufacturers. The inventions of the Industrial Age increased the supply and demand for goods. For many years, merchants transported goods by water, but now that factories were no longer located near waterways, this proved impractical. The most common means for transport across land was by horse-drawn carriage. But suppliers were limited by the strength of the horses. Further, during periods of heavy rain, carriage wheels became stuck in the muddy roads. These circumstances gave impetus to innovations in transportation that would enable manufacturers to move goods more quickly and easily. These innovations in turn would give rise to a revolution in transportation that rivaled the revolution taking place in industry itself.
Great Britain was a leader of the Industrial Revolution. It had a strong hold on the textile industry, due in part to inventions such as the spinning jenny and flying shuttle. As other countries began replicating British technology, Britain sought a means of maintaining its competitive edge. One way was to increase speed to market by finding a new and better way to transport goods.
On September 27, 1825, almost seven hundred people climbed onto open coal wagons set on a track near Darlington, England. The engine at the front of the train—a new steam-powered engine called a locomotive—started up, and the cars began moving. This was a slow journey; it took two hours to travel just 12 miles (19 kilometers). By the time the train reached Stockton, a crowd of forty thousand people had gathered to witness the event. The end of the first train trip was marked by a twenty-one-gun salute.
The railway had already become popular among mine operators as a means of transporting their goods from the mine to port prior to the development of the locomotive. The early tramways used a horse to pull a wheeled cart along parallel wooden tracks. Though still requiring horses, the tracks reduced friction between the wagon and the surface while also giving the horse more pulling power. In the early 1800s, several companies began to build tramways to move people and goods between cities. Work on the track between Darlington and Stockton had begun in 1822. Instead of using wooden tracks, George Stephenson (1781–1848), a coal miner’s son who had risen through the ranks to become chief engineer at a coal operation, had instead fashioned rails out of malleable iron laid on wooden blocks.
In addition to making changes to the tracks, Stephenson wanted to use steam power instead of horsepower. The use of steam to power vehicles was relatively new. Nicholas Joseph Cugnot (1725–1804), a French mechanic, had attempted to use a steam engine to power a three-wheeled tractor for the French army to carry artillery. He had also built a steam-powered tricycle that carried four passengers. In 1801 engineer Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) improved on Cugnot’s design by putting the engine at the rear wheels to create a vehicle he named the Puffing Devil. Two years later he applied his design to a locomotive, building the world’s first steam locomotive. It was used at the Penydarren Ironworks in South Wales.
In 1823 Stephenson and several investors formed a company to manufacture his locomotive. His first railway locomotive, Locomotion, was finished in September 1825, just in time to make the historic trip between Darlington and Stockton. Locomotion was used regularly along the new Stockton and Darlington Railway (SD&R), which carried freight from coalmines to a port on the river. The railroad began running trains every day except Sundays and charged the coal mines a half-penny per mile—far less than what it cost to transport coal by horse-drawn carts. Regular passenger service was introduced, but the passenger carriages continued to be pulled by horses.
Within just a few years, a number of railways were opened for use for freight and passengers. In 1829 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway decided to use locomotives instead of horses. In a competition held to choose the locomotive design, Stephenson’s Rocket won. Opening in September 1830, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway used steam locomotives exclusively, becoming the first modern railway. The Liverpool and Manchester line carried more than four hundred thousand passengers in its first year of service.
The advent of the railroad revolutionized transportation. Before railroads, most commerce was dependent on rivers and other waterways; now people and goods could travel across land quickly and easily. Train travel was much faster than travel by horse and carriage or stagecoach; the movement of goods became cheaper and more efficient. Railroads also made it feasible to travel over or through mountains and across waterways, enabling people and goods to reach previously inaccessible areas. Railroads linked cities and fueled the Industrial Revolution by making it less expensive for merchandise to travel from factory to retailer to consumer. The first coal mine owners who used the SD&R reported that the locomotive cut their transportation costs by two-thirds.
The lower costs of transportation widened consumer markets and fueled the growth of even larger factories that could realize greater profit. More workers began to be employed at these factories, drawing farmers from the rural agricultural life with the lure of jobs in the cities. As cities grew, the urban working class replaced farmers as the largest occupational group. Railroads also facilitated the growth of cities by making it possible to transport the heavy materials needed to build structures across great distances.
These factors contributed to the rapid growth of the railroad. By 1855 more than 8,000 miles (12,874 kilometers) of railroad track stretched across Great Britain. New railroads were built in other parts of Europe and the world. In the United States, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, connecting people on both coasts and opening up the American West for settlement by immigrants. By the late 1800s, railroads had become part of everyday life throughout the industrialized world.