Great Issues Lecture Series tracks railway development


By Dennis Gosnell

Student Reporter

 

The Honors Program invited assistant professor Peter Soppelsa, of the History of Science department at the University of Oklahoma, to provide insight into early railway development and what it meant for those who lived in the era at the final Great Issues Lecture of the spring semester.

Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil. Photo Courtesy of MCTCampus

Recently filled, a tanker truck drives past railway cars containing crude oil. Photo Courtesy of MCTCampus

Early development

“In 1830, all across Europe was a series of political revolutions that tried to upset monarchies and tried to bring new democracies into place instead,” Soppelsa said. “And one of the nations that was most affected, where this story is most important, is Belgium.”

Belgium, in building their nation from its war for independence with the Spanish, seized upon the idea of building a railway to help establish their new country, he said.

To Belgium Prime Minister Charles Rogier, the railway was a project of “material interest of the nation, what (their) constitution was to its moral interest,” Soppelsa said.

Belgium’s government furnished funds to construct a railway, while many other countries relied on early forms of corporations to finance railway construction, Soppelsa said.

Culture and poets

According to Soppelsa’s presentation, poet Heinrich Heine and author Charles Dickens were not above the controversy that arose from the building of a railway.

“I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris.

Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time alone.” – Heinrich Heine

Still, Dickens did not yet know what effect the railway would have on culture, Soppelsa said.

“There was even a railway time observed in clocks as if the sun itself had given in.” – Charles Dickens

Time in this era was not yet determined by clocks but by the sun’s movement. However, after railway development, time became essential to the delivery of goods and the transportation of people, Soppelsa said.

Railroads & media

Norman E. Tutorow (cq) has published two books on Leland Stanford (cq) compiling of nearly 10 years of research.  Photo courtesy of MCT Campus

Norman E. Tutorow (cq) has published two books on Leland Stanford (cq) compiling of nearly 10 years of research. Photo courtesy of MCT Campus

On May 10, 1869, in Promontory, Calif., the last spike of the transcontinental railroad, known as the “golden” spike, was driven into the ground by Leland Stanford. It was designed to send a telegraph signal when struck by a specially made hammer, Soppelsa said.

“It could be said that this was the first mass media telegraph,” he said. “Once the hammer struck the spike it would send a signal to Washington D.C. and others throughout the country,” to broadcast the news that the railway was complete.

Health & Crime

Concerns were raised in Europe and other countries about the safety and well-being of passengers.

“Medical professionals debated whether or not the rumbling and rattling would damage people’s joints,” Soppelsa said. “They also wondered at the psychological effects, as well as the question to whether or not moving faster would be fatiguing to the passenger.”

What the future brings

Those in the 19th century guessed what the future would bring for the railway and cities of the world. Soppelsa said that artists imagined what the future

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