Whereas shipping, road and river transport stretched back many centuries, railways have a comparatively recent history. Their origins lay in two separate developments, the iron rail and the steam locomotive. The earliest railways, or wagonways, were simple wooden tracks which exploited the low frictional resistance of smooth surfaces. Several examples date back to at least the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century wooden tracks were frequently used in lines connecting coal mines with riverside staiths. Coal was conveyed in trucks from the pithead to the riverside by the force of gravity. The empty trucks were then returned by a horse or stationary engine. Wooden tracks were gradually replaced by iron because of its greater durability and reduced friction. In 1821 John Birkinshaw patented the process of rolling wrought iron for rails which was more ductile than cast iron. Innovations in the steel industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly the Bessemer process, enabled steel rails to replace iron. The application of steam power to railways in the nineteenth century also required the use of stronger, non-combustible metallic rails. Early experiments with steam for pumping in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led on to its use in transport once engineers learned to convert reciprocating into rotary motion.


European Economy Steel Rail Freight Rate Railway System Railway Company 
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  1. 2.
    C. K. Hyde, Technological Change and the British Iron Industry, 1700–1870, Princeton, 1977.Google Scholar

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© Simon P. Ville 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Simon P. Ville
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AucklandNew Zealand

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