The Rail Revolution

As we noted last time, twenty years elapsed from the time when Trevithick gave up on the steam locomotive before rails would begin to seriously challenge canals as major transport arteries for Britain, not mere peripheral capillaries. To complete that revolution required improvements in locomotives, better rails, and a new way of thinking about the… Continue reading The Rail Revolution

High Pressure, Part 2: The First Steam Railway

Railways long predate the steam locomotive. Trackways with grooves to keep a wheeled cart on a fixed path date back to antiquity (such as the Diolkos, which could carry a naval vessel across the Isthmus of Corinth on a wheeled truck). The earliest evidence for carts running atop wooden rails, though, comes from the mining… Continue reading High Pressure, Part 2: The First Steam Railway

High-Pressure, Part I: The Western Steamboat

The next act of the steamboat lay in the west, on the waters of the Mississippi basin. The settler population of this vast region—Mark Twain wrote that “the area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey”—was already growing rapidly… Continue reading High-Pressure, Part I: The Western Steamboat

The Steamboat Inventors: The Second Generation

Robert Livingston’s First Partnership It would take a further twenty years after the deaths of Fitch and Rumsey before steamboat travel was established on a permanent basis in the U.S. Several more would-be steamboat inventors came and went before a partnership between two men drove the development of the steamboat to its successful conclusion. The… Continue reading The Steamboat Inventors: The Second Generation

James Watt, Instrument Maker

[Part of a series: The Age of Steam] A New Synthesis In the eighteenth century, new lines of communication and new alliances were forming between the world of the artisan and craftsman on the one hand, and the world of the “schoolmen,” the university scholars, steeped in abstract knowledge, on the other. This convergence arguably… Continue reading James Watt, Instrument Maker

The Triumvirate: Coal, Iron, and Steam

[Part of a series: The Age of Steam] The steam engine might have amounted to relatively little if not for its two compatriots, coal and iron. Together they formed a kind of triumvirate, ruling over an industrial empire. Or perhaps an ecological metaphor is more appropriate – a symbiosis among three species, each nourishing one… Continue reading The Triumvirate: Coal, Iron, and Steam

Internet Ascendant, Part 2: Going Private and Going Public

In the summer of 1986, Senator Al Gore, Jr., of Tennessee introduced an amendment to the Congressional Act that authorized the  budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF). He called for the federal government to study the possibilities for “communications networks for supercomputers at universities and Federal research facilities.” To explain the purpose of this… Continue reading Internet Ascendant, Part 2: Going Private and Going Public

Internet Ascendant, Part 1: Exponential Growth

In 1990, John Quarterman, a networking consultant and UNIX expert, published a comprehensive survey of the state of computer networks. In a brief section on the potential future for computing, he predicted the appearance of a single global network for "electronic mail, conferencing, file transfer, and remote login, just as there is now one worldwide… Continue reading Internet Ascendant, Part 1: Exponential Growth

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

Between roughly 1975 and 1995, access to computers accelerated much more quickly than access to computer networks. First in the United States, and then in other wealthy countries, computers became commonplace in the homes of the affluent, and nearly ubiquitous in institutions of higher education. But if users of those computers wanted to connect their… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 3: The Statists

In the spring of 1981, after several smaller trials, The French telecommunications administration (Direction générale des Télécommunications, or DGT), began a large-scale videotex experiment in a region of Brittany called Ille-et-Vilaine, named after its two main rivers. This was the prelude to the full launch of the system across l'Hexagone in the following year. The… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 3: The Statists

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 2: Sowing the Wasteland

On May 9, 1961, Newton Minow, newly-appointed chairman of the FCC, gave the first speech of his tenure. He spoke before the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade industry group founded in the 1920s to forward the interests of commercial radio, an organization dominated in Minow's time by the big three of ABC, CBS, and… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 2: Sowing the Wasteland

The Era of Fragmentation, Part 1: Load Factor

By the early 1980s, the roots of what we know now as the Internet had been established - its basic protocols designed and battle-tested in real use - but it remained a closed system almost entirely under the control of a single entity, the U.S. Department of Defense. Soon that would change, as it expanded… Continue reading The Era of Fragmentation, Part 1: Load Factor