The Roots of Progress

19th-century progress studies

I wrote earlier about an 1857 plan for the transcontinental railroad (as yet unbuilt), and how it advocated funding the project through the sale of stock to a broad base of public investors. However, another aspect of the plan was even more striking: it explicitly advocating studying the history of progress, in order to judge what was possible and desirable for the railroad. It was like a 19th-century form of progress studies.

The author of the plan, Theodore Judah, first addresses the question of how fast the trains will travel from St. Louis to San Francisco: three days, he estimates. But then he points out that this estimate is only based on the speeds attainable by “our present class of engines.” The next paragraphs exemplify the 19th-century spirit of progress:


Is there to be no improvement in our present class of engines? have we reached a point in the stage of progress where we must stop, beyond which we cannot go? Are we willing to admit that fifty miles per hour is the limit to speed? Are we contented, and do we desire to go no faster?


However well we may be satisfied with the present rate of speed in traveling, we dare not admit the principle—we wish to go as fast as we can. Improvements are progressive and the future is before us. No, we have not arrived at the limit, at a final stopping place; we are only at a station, a way station—we have paused, but not to remain. We do not travel fast enough, nor will we, until a speed of one hundred miles per hour is attained with as much ease, and as little risk, as at present.

In defense of this idea, he explicitly appeals to history:

Does the idea seem preposterous? Is it foolish, visionary? Is it absurd?

Let us inquire into the matter a little: let us extract a few notes from the history of progress.

What follows is a long passage about the history of roads and horse travel in England starting in the 16th century. He points out that horseback riding was slow, uncomfortable, and dangerous. He describes the establishment of the English post office in 1660, which greatly sped up mail delivery; and the development of stage coach service, which was an improvement on riding horseback.

He also points out that advances in travel were often unappreciated, even opposed. He quotes several paragraphs from a 1673 pamphlet decrying the stage coaches and pining for the old days of horseback. The pamphlet claimed that horseback was a healthier mode of travel, and advocated restrictions on coach service. He tells the story of an early railroad promoter, Thomas Gray, who was called a fool in the 1820s and who failed to raise funding for his proposed system of railways. He quotes authors as late as 1829, the year that locomotives were demonstrated to be practical in the famous Rainhill trials, writing of “the ridiculous expectations… that we shall see engines traveling at the rate of twelve, sixteen, eighteen or twenty miles per hour” and calling grand plans for railroad networks “visionary schemes unworthy of notice.” He concludes:

Such opinions thus expressed by authorities of such eminence, in opposition to what is now an every day reality, may well induce the most intelligent and far sighted to hesitate in making dogmatical assertions as to what may or may not be the revelations of the future.

Judah was writing less than thirty years into the the great age of railroads, but already he spoke of what had been accomplished so far in glowing terms:

… those short twenty-six years are a living monument in the progress of time more grand, lofty and noble than the proudest pyramid which the world has yet gazed upon.

Twenty-five thousand miles of railroad have been built in this country or an average of one thousand miles per year.

Where is the man who can sum up the grand, mighty benefits which have, in consequence, accrued to mankind. If the man could be found with a mind vast enough to comprehend and with talent sufficient to compass them, he could write a tale in comparison with which the mightiest achievements of the collective world would sink into utter insignificance. No one appreciates the innumerable blessings which have flowed in consequence, for the story has never been told; it is not understood.

(Already, in 1857, he is saying that progress is not understood or appreciated!)

But it is one of the first steps of the newly awakened young giant, Progress, and shall we measure his glorious march by a few strides? No: he may pause to rest, but it is to recruit his powers for new conquests, and among them some of will yet see the realization of our preposterous, absurd idea, viz, “traveling by railroad at the rate of 100 miles per hour, with the same safety as present,” is not near so startling or absurd a proposition, in this age, was that of 20 miles per hour only thirty years ago.

Incidentally, many trains in Europe and Asia today travel at well over 300 miles per hour.

It is amazing to think of Judah’s tremendous confidence in progress, given how much of it was yet to come. In 1857, electric light and power were still decades away. The Bessemer process for making cheap steel had not yet been introduced on a large scale. Synthetic fertilizer had not yet been invented. The germ theory had not yet been discovered, and mortality from infectious disease was still staggering by today’s standards. Telephone was still a dream; radio and television a fantasy. And of course, the internal combustion engine, and its twin children the automobile and airplane, were well in the future.

And yet, here is Judah, already confident in the march of capital-P Progress, and pointing to history to justify his vision and to dismiss skeptics.

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

Social media link image credit: Flickr / James St. John

Get posts by email:

Become a patron

Get posts by email