Steamships, Part 2: The Further Adventures of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Iron Empire As far back as 1832, Macgregor Laird had taken the iron ship Alburkah to Africa and up the Niger, making it among the first ship of such construction to take the open sea. But the use of iron hulls in British inland navigation can be traced decades earlier, beginning with river barges in… Continue reading Steamships, Part 2: The Further Adventures of Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Steamships, Part I: Crossing the Atlantic

For much of this story, our attention has focused on events within the isle of Great Britain, and with good reason: primed by the virtuous cycle of coal, iron, and steam, the depth and breadth of Britain’s exploitation of steam power far exceeded that found anywhere else, for roughly 150 years after the groaning, hissing… Continue reading Steamships, Part I: Crossing the Atlantic

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