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The Infancy Of American Railroads

Winter 1998 | Volume 13 |  Issue 3

STANFORD, CALIF. : In connection with this issue’s article on railroads and winter, John H. White, Jr.— an endless fount of wisdom on all things related to railroads—recently called our attention to the publication of Die Innern Communicationen der Vereinigten Staaten von Nord America ( The Internal Communications of the United States of North America ), by Franz Anton Ritter von Gerstner, in an English translation by Stanford University Press (844 pages, $95.00). The book, long known as a classic among railroad historians, sets forth what Gerstner learned about American railroads and canals during a tour of the country between 1838 and 1840. In that time he visited virtually every railroad in America and recorded its history, financial status, engineering practices, and assorted other data, all in exceedingly minute detail. Perhaps no one but Jack White would read this book straight through, but anyone interested in railroads can dip into it at random and be sure to find something rewarding.

An engineer’s voluminous report, newly translated into English, shows how railroads had already begun transforming America by the late 1830s

Gerstner made the trip in support of a railroad he was hoping to build in Russia. He had previously started such a project in his native Germany, but it incurred huge cost overruns and was abandoned half-built. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, he gathered information on American railroads, which were usually constructed to less demanding standards than European ones, to show that his Russian project could be built cheaply. (He also investigated canals and other forms of water transportation, mostly to show that railroads were a better bargain.) Gerstner’s new bride accompanied him, and their trip must have been an even bigger trial than the usual honeymoon, with such adventures as an icy Christmas Eve journey between Ithaca and Owego, New York, that was spiced with numerous derailments, and an Ohio canalboat ride during which passengers repeatedly had to hit the deck when passing under bridges with only two feet of clearance.

Railroads covered in the book range from major lines like the Baltimore & Ohio down to the 1 ½-mile Portage Railroad of Bowling Green, Kentucky. In keeping with the purpose of his journey, Gerstner devotes much space to financial details, recording not only construction costs, wages, and fares but also that the Syracuse & Utica paid $372.00 for cattle killed in the second half of 1839, while the Boston & Worcester used 656 gallons of sperm oil, 289 gallons of whale oil, and 529 pounds of tallow for lubrication in the first half of 1838. As the failure of his German line showed, Gerstner was more of an engineer than a financier, and this background comes through in the amount of space he devotes to the arcana of track construction (sizes of cross ties, types of gravel, and grades of iron used in the rails), structural analysis of bridges, the radii of curved sections, and so forth. Along the way he mentions just about every important figure in early American railroading, including George W. Whistler, father of the painter James McNeill Whistler.

Though the main focus is technical and financial, the author also makes a number of sociological observations. For example, in his section on the Petersburg Railroad in Virginia, Gerstner writes: “Negroes pay half fare when they ride in the baggage car; but most of them take seats in the passenger coaches. In this regard the slaves in the South have it better than their colored brothers in the North, for the latter are not permitted to ride on the railroad in the same coaches with whites.” In his section on the Long Island Railroad (which in 1838 ended in “a veritable wilderness” at the town of Hicksville), Gerstner speaks of a plan to extend service another hundred miles to the eastern end of the island’s north fork. From there a ferry would carry passengers to Stonington, Connecticut, which had a rail connection to Boston. Gerstner predicted that the rail-ferry combination would eliminate steamship service from New York to Stonington “because Americans put such a high premium on saving 3 hours of time.”

Gerstner did not live to see his book published. In the summer of 1839 he fell ill, partly from chronic diseases and partly, perhaps, from the arrival in America of a rival team of Russian inspectors, more experienced and better connected than Gerstner. With his railroad enterprise seemingly doomed, Gerstner’s health got steadily worse (despite the birth of a daughter, named Philadelphia after her parents’ city of residence at the time). In April 1840 he died at the age of forty-three. His assistant Ludwig Klein, who had accompanied him on the trip, finished the book and published it in 1842. Today, translated into English for the first time, it is an invaluable portrait of America’s infant railroad industry on the eve of its age of explosive expansion.

Edison Revisited

NEWARK, N.J. : A conference to mark the 150th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birth was held in late June at Rutgers UniversityNewark and at the Edison National Historic Site (NHS) in nearby West Orange. As is common at such conferences, the opening session assembled an all-star group of distinguished historians to analyze and discuss Edison’s continuing significance. As is also common, the air was thick with talk of paradigms, metaphors, and all the other indispensable tools of the modern scholarly workshop. Edison, a famously practical man, might have had difficulty sitting through the session’s two hours plus. Yet just as his Edison effect—discovered in 1883, patented, and then ignored for lack of useful applications—was revived decades later as the basis of the vacuum tube, so too can a fresh look at his life and work hold important lessons for present and future generations.

Since Edison has received extensive attention from historians through the years, his biggest achievements and most prominent failures have been virtually picked clean by now. Today, therefore, many researchers are focusing on the more obscure parts of his huge output. Andrea C. Dragon of the College of St. Elizabeth described the inventor’s futile efforts to extract commercial quantities of rubber from goldenrod. George Tselos of the Edison NHS discussed Edison’s brief mid-1890s infatuation with X rays, an episode that ended tragically when one of his assistants died from overexposure. Other researchers went beyond the inventor’s papers, notebooks, and newspaper interviews to seek information in other archival sources: letters he received from friends, colleagues, supplicants, and cranks; advertisements for his inventions; even the labels on his company’s phonograph records.

Some of the papers were read by Edison NHS employees wearing the chocolate brown Smokey Bear uniform of the National Parks Service. It was surely one of the few times in the discipline of technological history when scholarly monographs have been delivered by men and women in short pants. Equally anomalous was the presence of Loren Schoenberg’s Scrap-iron Jazzoreenos, who performed in a demonstration of Edison’s wax-cylinder sound-recording equipment. But the setting of the conference, at least, was entirely appropriate—not just the laboratory where the inventor made his greatest discoveries but the city of Newark as well.

It was in Newark in 1871 that the twenty-four-year-old Edison opened his first manufacturing company after receiving a big order for stock tickers from Western Union. Nowadays industrial Newark is almost as outdated as the telegraph business; yet it survives and has hopes of flourishing again. To understand where Newark and dozens of other cities in the same situation may be going requires an understanding of where they have been. While those in attendance spent much of their time discussing the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their words had relevance to the city and the world beyond the Rutgers campus—present and future as well as past.

Our Own Honored

PHILADELPHIA, PA. : The past year saw a pair of Invention & Technology authors receive major awards from technical societies. Dr. Ralph Landau, who co-wrote “America’s High-Tech Triumph,” our 1990 account of the rise of the American chemical engineering industry, was awarded the first Othmer Gold Medal by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF). The medal is named for the late Dr. Donald Frederick Othmer, a long-time professor at Brooklyn Polytechnic who was a founding editor of the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology and a major contributor to the study of chemical history. In its citation the CHF praised Dr. Landau for combining his achievements as a world-renowned chemical engineer with a second, equally distinguished career exploring the origins of the field and explaining its economic importance to the general public.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, T. A. Heppenheimer, author of this issue’s profile of Irving Langmuir, received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ annual award for Distinguished Literary Contributions Furthering Public Understanding of the Profession. The award was for his Summer 1996 article “What Made Bell Labs Great.” Earlier in the year the well-traveled Heppenheimer—by far the most frequent contributor in Invention & Technology ’s dozen years of existence—was invited to Gaithersburg, Maryland, to address the staff of the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the same subject.

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