The glory of the invention of railway transportation

09/02/2021

According to archaeologists and historians, the earliest traces of the use of the wheel in transportation date back at least seven thousand years. These early vehicles were pulled by horses, mules, and other draft animals, giving rise to specialized chariots for transporting goods, as well as many forms of war chariots.

The roller coaster was the predecessor of the railroad. Image: SCT.
The roller coaster was the predecessor of the railroad. Image: SCT.

As the vehicles increased in weight and size, the Greeks carved channels on the stone road so that the wheels would not slip if the terrain was too slippery, and thus invented the first tracks. Many years later, this simple technique would be taken up again in the German coal mines because it was common for the wagons transporting the ore to sink into the mud due to the weight.

The difference with the ancient Greek rails was that the German miners, instead of digging on the ground, installed on the surface pieces of wood joined by crossbeams on which they made their wagons run. Thanks to the experience and careful observation, they added an "L" shaped flange to these rudimentary rails which prevented the wagons from derailing, however, rough handling and the weight of the load caused the wooden rails to wear out quickly.

Soon English miners perfected this technique by covering the wooden rails with iron, and soon after, thanks to the boom in iron production, the first metal rails began to be produced. The new system was so successful that small lines were built linking the mines with the nearest rivers, which included small bridges to overcome uneven terrain or bodies of water.

At the same time that animal-drawn iron roads were being developed, the first gravity "iron roads" began to operate, of which there were two types: those that descended overland on a track and those that descended hanging from a cable.

The first type was widely used in mining, so that loaded wagons were lowered down a slope and then returned by animal traction to the starting point. The second type had more limited use because the load volume depended on the resistance of the cable supporting the wagon during the descent, which tended to generate accidents.

A playful example of iron gravity roads was the Roulette, built by King Louis XIV of France at one of his residences near Paris, which consisted of a carriage that descended a 250-meter slope from a small house built on top of a hill to the valley near the royal residence, providing a thrilling experience for intrepid aristocrats.

The invention of rails, sleepers, railway bridges, funicular railways, cable cars, roller coasters, passenger stations and even the invention of motor transport was on the verge of being invented even before the railroad began its journey.

In the mid-18th century, with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing demand for transportation, the search began for a cheaper way to replace animal traction. To this end, experiments began with the atmospheric pressure engine invented by Thomas Newcomen, and soon after, with the steam engine invented by James Watt. Although Watt's steam engine quickly had multiple uses in industry and mining, its application to transportation was not immediate.

One of the first attempts was developed by Nicholas Cugnot who intended to manufacture a wagon powered by a small steam engine, a project that failed due to the low power of the engines of the time and the enormous weight of the boiler, which could not circulate on the battered English roads. Although Cugnot's project was unsuccessful, it was taken up by Richard Trevithick, who came up with the idea that the cart could run on rails mounted on land previously prepared to support the weight.

Thus, even before the railroad began its journey, rails, sleepers, railroad bridges, funiculars, cable cars, roller coasters, passenger stations and even automobile transportation were about to be invented. The glory of the invention of the locomotive, the central element of any railroad, would correspond to the Englishman George Stephenson.

By: Arturo Valencia, Source: El Mirador