Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"This seemed like annihilating space."

At the risk of stealing the steamboat's focus for the railroad, Ari's post (see below) prompted me to pull Solnit off the shelf to find some excerpts:
Once, the North American continent had taken months to cross, and the passage was arduous and perilous. In the decade before the railroad the time had been whittled down to six or seven grueling weeks, barring accidents. With the completion of the railroad those three thousand miles of desert, mountain, prairie, and forest could be comfortably crossed in under a week. No space so vast had ever been shrunk so dramatically. The transcontinental railroad changed the scale of the earth itself, diminishing the time it took to circumnavigate the globe. . . .

Barges had transformed the the transport of goods in England before railroads arrived, and the manmade canals built in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to accommodate them had transformed the English landscape. Before, most communities had relied largely on local materials for building supplies, provisions, and other materials. Roads were bad and sometimes dangerous, horses were expensive, and each village and town lived in a kind of isolation hard to imagine now. Most people who wanted to get somewhere walked, and many lived and died having never gone farther than a day's walk from home. By the early nineteenth century a carefully coordinated stagecoach system with horses changed every dozen miles or so brought traveling speeds up to ten miles an hour for those who could afford its exorbitant charges, and the coaches seemed reckless and godlike in their swiftness.

Goods moved on barges along canals dug into the landscape, and the barges themselves were a slow-moving business. [Eadweard] Muybridge's cousin Maybanke Susannah Anderson recalled that when their grandfather Edward Smith "drove in his gig to London, to buy wheat or coal, he took under the seat of his gig, a carrier pigeon, and in his pocked a quill or two, and when he bought a cargo, he wrote on a small piece of paper the number of barges he needed, put the paper in the quill, tied it under the wing of the pigeon and set it free. Someone watching for the bird's arrival unfastened the quill, took the message to the barges, and they started." Pigeons were the fastest communications technology; horses were the fastest transportation technology; the barges moved at the speed of the river or the pace of the horses that pulled them along the canals. Nature itself was the limit of speed: humans could only harness water, wind, birds, beasts. Born into this almost medievally slow world, the impatient, ambitious, inventive Muybridge would leave it and link himself instead to the fastest and newest technologies of the day. But that world was already being transformed profoundly.

On September 15, 1830, less than six months after Muybridge's birth, the first passenger railroad opened. The celebrated young actress Fanny Kemble had been given a preview of the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad that August. In a letter to a friend she exclaimed, "The engine . . . set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies (for they tried the experiment with a snipe). You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible too. I could have either read or written; and as it was, I stood up, and with my bonnet off 'drank the air before me.' . . . When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful and strange beyond description." Thirty-five miles an hour was nearly as fast as the fastest horse, and unlike a gallop, it could be sustained almost indefinitely. It was a dizzying speed. Passengers found the landscape out the train windows was blurred, impossible to contemplate, erased by speeds that would now seem a slow crawl to us. Those who watched the trains approach sometimes thought they were physically getting larger, because the perceptual change in a large object approaching at that speed was an unprecedented phenomenon. Ulysses S. Grant remembered riding on one of the early railroads in Pennsylvania in 1839 with the same amazement that most early travelers recorded: "We traveled at least eighteen miles an hour when at full speed, and made the whole distance averaging as much as twelve miles an hour. This seemed like annihilating space." If distance was measured in time, then the world had suddenly began to shrink; places connected by railroad were, for all practical purposes, several times closer to each other than they ever had been.

At the railroad's official opening, Kemble returned to ride with her mother, who was "frightened to death" of "a situation which appeared to her to threaten with instant annihilation herself and all her traveling companions." That celebration of a thousand passengers and almost a million onlookers along the route was interrupted by an actual annihilation, the death of the progressive Tory politician William Huskisson. At a stop to take on water for the steam engines, Huskisson got out to stretch and was hit by an oncoming train. It is hard to imagine today the reflexes and responses that made it impossible to step away from a noisy locomotive going perhaps thirty miles an hour, but Huskisson could not. His leg was run over and crushed. Though the duke of Wellington applied a tourniquet to prevent him from bleeding to death on the spot, he died that evening.
Rebecca Solnit, River Of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge And The Technological Wild West 5, 8-10 (Viking, 2003).

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