Technological Backtracking


Tom Vanderbilt has illuminating essay on Slate about the declining speed of American railroads as a case study in technological regression. As Vanderbilt observes on the Administration's plans for high speed rail:

Obama's bold vision obscures a simple fact: 220 mph would be phenomenal, but we would also do well to simply get trains back up to the speeds they traveled at during the Harding administration.

True enough, but at a recent open house of local historical museum, I did notice early 20th century timetables of the Pennsylvania Railroad Philadelphia - New York corridor. Verdict: for all the problems of today Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and Philadelphia SEPTA service, I'm leaving the old rattan-seated Pennsy commuter cars out of my time-travel plans. Indeed, readers of Vanderbilt's excellent piece should still balance it with the observation of the great mid-20th century railroad enthusiast and dandy Lucius Beebe on the typical level of service beyond the celebrated premium-fare candy trains of yore: "the American public rode to dusty destinies in regimented discomfort." Apart from the absence of boiler smoke and cinders, today's airline passenger service may be only a return to a grim long-term transportation reality.

Regarding US railroads, there's another reason for our lag behind European and Japanese railroad service. As my friend Mark Reutter has pointed out, the technology used by Europeans after World War II was developed here in the US during the Depression by Budd and other formerly world-leading companies. Access for all: transportation and urban growth by K. H. Schaeffer and Elliott Sclar (Columbia University Press reprint, 1980). The US structure of competitive passenger routes between major terminals fostered a few flagship runs like the Twentieth Century Limited, but for most travelers and journeys it meant awkward delays and changes of terminal within cities because schedules and connections were not coordinated as they were in Europe. The shortest rail trip between two small Ohio towns could often mean a detour of two sides of a steep triangle via, say, Columbus, including a change of depots there. This happened less often in Europe. Until 1967, England even had what was popularly called the Varsity Line connecting Oxford and Cambridge, making travel through London unnecessary.

As Vanderbilt observes, time can erode as well as enhance skills. The most striking example of the regression of a technology may be art and science of making geared computers like the Greek engineering masterpiece, the Antikythera Mechanism, recovered a century ago from a Roman shipwreck and still yielding new secrets.

Special thanks to Dan Akst for the link!

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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