Steam engines and iron improvements bring the world into the age of the railway.


Horse-Drawn Railroads

1700s: Mining companies establish wagons on railways. This allows horses to haul large wagons weighing 10-13 tons, four times the previous amount, to nearby processing facilities.

Puffing Devil

1801: British inventor Richard Trevithick builds an experimental road vehicle powered by a small steam engine. His invention is the first to carry passengers a short distance.

Catch Me Who Can

1808: Trevithick builds a temporary circular track in London that features a steam-based vehicle called Catch Me Who Can. The public can pay 1 shilling each for a ride around the track.


To distinguish between steam engine types, mobile ones begin to be called a locomotive engine. It is a Latin term meaning from a place (loco) and causing motion (motivus).


1812: British inventor Matthew Murray builds a vehicle to test his lighter steam-engine design. Murray names it Salamanca following England’s recent victory at the Battle of Salamanca.

Middleton Railway

The Middleton Railway hauls coal between Middleton and Leeds in England. The company purchases Salamanca’s vehicle and begins to transition from horse-drawn wagons to steam-based ones.

Puffing Billy

Industrial Engineer William Hedley of England invents the coupling of rail wheels, which makes locomotives more efficient on rails. He constructs the Puffing Billy locomotive to showcase his design.

Cornwall Mining

Cornwall in south west England is rich in copper and tin. Hundreds of steam engines pump water out of the deep mines and the extracted precious metals are transported throughout the globe.

Middleton Railway is the first successful steam-powered railway in the world and the oldest working railway. 

Puffing Billy is the oldest surviving locomotive and is displayed in the Science Museum of London.

Wrought-Iron Rails

1820: English Engineer John Birkinshaw invents a system to create 15ft wrought iron rails. They are much stronger than the previous 3ft cast iron rails which were brittle and prone to fracture.

Robert Stephenson

English engineer George Stephenson constructs a few experimental locomotives for the Killingworth coal mine. He also establishes Robert Stephenson and Company with his son Robert.

First Passenger Train

1825: George and Robert Stephenson build the first Steam locomotive designed to carry passengers on a public rail line. The locomotive is called Active, but later is known as Locomotion 1.

Hot Blast

1828: Scottish Inventor James Beaumont Neilson patents his hot blast process. It saves energy, increases furnace capacity, and improves the quality of smelting iron.

The Hot Blast metallurgic process is considered one of the most important technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution. 

Rainhill Trials

1829: Liverpool and Manchester Railway establish a locomotive competition. Ten locomotives are entered into the competition, but only five designs are constructed in time.

Stephenson’s Rocket

Nearly 10,000 spectators gather at Rainhill for the Locomotive contest. Robert Stevenson’s Rocket completes all the trials and is given a contract to produce locomotives for Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

Stephenson Locomotives

Robert Stephenson and Company becomes a dominant railway advisor and locomotive builder. They produce locomotives for the United Kingdom, the United States, and other European nations.

Stephenson Gauge

George Stephenson determined an optimum track spacing of 4 ft 8 1⁄2. With the Robert Stephenson and Company having the most popular locomotives, the spacing becomes common.

George Stephenson is sometimes known as the Father of Railways. His rail spacing became known as the Standard-Gauge and is the most common spacing used today.

Canterbury & Whitstable Railway

1830: Stephenson builds a 5¾ mile railway between Canterbury and the port fishing town of Whitstable. It helps alleviate traffic problems in Canterbury by carrying both passengers and freight.

Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Liverpool & Manchester completes the construction of the first full-fledged steam locomotive passenger service. It carries workers, follows a timetable, and transports mail.

Rainhill Skew Bridge

Skew arch bridges are very difficult to construct and require precise stone cutting. George Stephenson’s company builds the first skew bridge to over train tracks in Rainhill.

Iron Horse

As locomotives gradually replace horses, they are given the nickname Iron Horse in Britain. There is about 121 km (75 miles) of railroad track in England.

Liverpool & Manchester Railway was the first intercity railway in the world.

The Rainhill Skew Bridge is a historic bridge that is still in use today.


First American Locomotive

South Carolina Rail Road Company builds a locomotive for their upcoming private railway. Named The Best Friend of Charleston, it is the first locomotive to be built entirely within the United States.

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad opens in Baltimore with its first 23 mile track. The ultimate goal is to cross the Appalachian Mountains and connect with Ohio in the west.

Tom Thumb

Industrialist Peter Cooper is the founder of Canton Iron Works. Also an inventor, he designs and builds the first locomotive for Baltimore & Ohio Railroad: Tom Thumb. 

First American Boiler Explosion

1831: A fire stoker on The Best Friend of Charleston ties down the steam pressure valve to stop the loud whistling. The boiler soon explodes, kills the worker, and wrecks the locomotive.

Baltimore & Ohio is one of the railroads featured in Monopoly. It is the only location in that game that is not connected to Atlantic City.

Saint-Étienne-Lyon Railway

1833: Seguin & Company completes construction of a railway between Saint-Étienne and Lyon in France. The 58 km railway requires a few bridges and tunnels and costs 14,500,000 francs. 

Public Railway

Brothers Marc and Camille Seguin, owners of Seguin & Company, fear that their railway could become a monopoly. They make their business a public company.

Railway Switch

1832: English engineer Charles Fox works on railways, stations, and bridges. He invents and patents the railroad point; An elaborate system of levers and gears that allow trains to switch tracks.

Belgium & German Railways

Line 25 railway opens between Brussels and Mechelen in Belgium. The Bavarian Ludwigsbahn railway opens between Nuremberg and Fürth in Bavaria, Germany and is named after German King Ludwig.

South Carolina Railroad

1833: The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company opens its full service. The 136-mile (219 km) line becomes the longest railroad in the world and the first passenger service in the United-States.

Boston & Worcester Railroad

1834: A railroad is built between Boston and Worcester to compete with the Erie Canal between Buffalo and New York. The recently opened canal is threatening Boston’s trade dominance.

New Orleans Railroads

1835: The first railways are built in New Orleans. The short-line rail system connects surrounding neighborhoods around the city and acts as a public transit system; the first urban rail system. 

Decline of Canals

Railways increasingly replace small canals as the primary methods of transporting goods. However, longer canals that connect oceans and larger lakes continue to be used for transportation.

The 363 mile-long (584 kilometer) Erie Canal between Lake Erie in Buffalo and Albany in New York opened in 1825. It was the second-longest canal in the world after the Grand Canal in China. 

The First Elevated Railway

1836-1838: London & Greenwich Railway construct the first above ground railway. The 878 arch brick viaduct is 5.55km in length and connects the London Bridge Railway station to Deptford Creek.

Great Western Railway

1838: Liverpool railway trade continues to grow and threatens Bristol trade. Bristol merchants build The Great Western Railway to link London and Bristol to rails throughout the United Kingdom.

Seven Foot Gauge

The Great Western Railway controversially uses a wide 7 ft ¼ in spacing between tracks for increased stability and larger wagons. It becomes part of the track spacing category known as Broad Gauges

The Gauge Wars

A rivalry emerges in Britain between companies that support narrow gauges and those that support broad gauges. Regions have different tracks depending on the policy of the dominant railway company. 

Railway Time

1840: Keeping track of train timetables becomes increasingly difficult due to different cities having their own local time. The Great Western Railway begins synchronizing their clocks to a single time.

Edmondson Railway Ticket

1842: English cabinet maker Thomas Edmondson invents a ticket booth to quickly print out tickets. Companies had been using handwritten tickets, but the process was slow and prone to fraud.

Railway Clearing House

An organization is established to help manage fares when passengers switch between railroad companies. It grows into a regulatory body that administers the running of all railways in Great Britain.

Railway Mania

British speculators increasingly invest money in the railway and it increases shares, which causes more investment. It creates a stock market bubble that collapses after a few years.

The Edmondson Railway Ticket system was used throughout Europe until the 1990s. Taiwan and Japan continue to use a variation of the system today.

Brussels-Cologne Connection

1843: Rhenish Railway Company receives authorization to build a rail connection between Brussels, Belgium and Cologne, Prussia. It is the first international railway line. 

Railway Regulation Act

The British government makes the track gauge of 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in (1,435 mm) the standard for Great Britain. However, the Great Western Railway can still build 7 ft ¼ in tracks in limited circumstances.

Greenwich Mean Time

1847-1848: Railway companies across Great Britain begin to sync their clocks to London time. The time is determined by the mean solar time at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in south-east London.

Time Inspectors

Watches used by railroad engineers and conductors become very important to avoid train crashes. Watchmakers are frequently hired to inspect and maintain the critical time pieces.

Department of Railways

The Russian Empire forms the Department of Railways to oversee the construction of their first major railway. A few test railways and locomotives were previously built in Russia.

Moscow-Saint Petersburg Railway

1842-1851: A Russian railway is built connecting the capitals of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The railway takes nearly ten years to build and many workers die during construction.

Restricted Access

Fearing that train travel could cause mass social disruption, the Russian railway is put under strict policing and only upper class citizens are allowed to use the line.

St. Petersburg-Warsaw Railway

1851: The Russian Empire commissions the construction of a railway from St. Petersburg in Russia to Russian-controlled Warsaw in Poland. It will connect their railway with Central Europe.

The state-owned Russian Railways is one of the biggest railway companies in the world today with 950,000 employees and 5,500 km (53,130 mi) of rails. 

Russian Railways use a track spacing of about 5 ft, which is known as the Russian Gauge. Popular throughout Eastern Europe, it is the second most used track spacing in the world.

Indianapolis Union Station

1853: Three railway companies open a large station in Indianapolis. It is the first train station in the world that is shared between companies and it allows passengers to easily transfer between train services.

First African Railway

1854: The Ottoman Government completes construction of a railway between Alexandria and Rosetta in Egypt. Rosetta is an important agricultural center in the Nile Delta.

The Great Gold Robbery

1855: Three railway workers conspire with a professional thief. They copy keys and steal £12,000 (nearly $13 million U.S. today) worth of gold from a safe during an overnight train stop in Dover, England.

Panama’s Interoceanic Railroad

A railway is built across Panama which connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. The 76.6 km railway takes five years to construct and costs $8 million. Up to 10,000 workers die from infectious diseases. 

Great Central Station

1856: Great Central Station officially opens in Chicago and initially serves three railroads. Illinois’ first permanent station cost US $250,000 and is one of the largest buildings in the city.

Transportation Center

Due to its location between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi river basin, Chicago becomes the transportation center of the United-States. Six train terminals are established in the city.

Rock Island Bridge

The first railroad bridge is built over the Mississippi river between Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. Steamboat companies are upset by the competition and navigational hazard.

Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Co.

A steamboat crashes into the Rock Island Bridge, catches fire, and sinks. The boat owner sues to have the bridge demolished, but lawyer Abraham Lincoln manages to get the lawsuit dismissed.


European Transcontinental Railway

Paris-Marseille Railway is built. Connecting to railways north of Paris, it creates the first transcontinental railroad. Railways are connected from the English Channel to the Mediterranean Sea.

The Bessemer Process

Henry Bessemer of England invents and patents a method to remove impurities from iron while simultaneously adding the appropriate amount of carbon. 

Mass Production of Steel

The Bessemer Process allows for the inexpensive mass production of steel. The process gradually improves as steel production goes from 7 pounds per ton to 40 pounds per ton. 

Steel Rails

1857: The first steel rails are used in Britain. The mass production of steel greatly improves railroads. Steel rails last ten times longer than iron rails and can carry heavier locomotives and longer trains.

The mass production of steel helped spur the Second Industrial Revolution and was a major enhancement for railroads.

Steam Injector

1858: French Engineer Henri Giffard invents the steam injector for steam locomotives. The more efficient water pumping system gradually replaces mechanical pumps.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel

The Virginia Central Railroad completes construction of four tunnels through the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Blue Ridge Tunnel near the top of the pass is a record-breaking 4,237-foot (1,291 m) long.

American Civil War Begins

1861: A civil war breaks out in the United States between anti-slavery northern states and pro-slavery southern states. Trains are frequently used to transport soldiers, supplies, and messages.

Transcontinental Railroad

1863: Three American railroad companies begin construction of the Pacific Railroad. The long railroad will connect California and the Pacific Coast with Iowa and eastern railroad networks.

The Blue Ridge Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the United-States and one of longest in the world. It survives today as a historical engineering landmark and tourist park.

The details concerning the building of the First Transcontinental Railway in the United States will be found in the upcoming Wild West page.

Metropolitan Underground Railway

1863: The first underground railway opens in London, England. Despite air vents, the passageways and trains are filled with steam engine smoke. However, the rapid transit still proves to be popular.

American Civil War Ends

1865: After desivively loosing a major battle in Virginia, the pro-slave southern states surrender to the anti-slave nothern states. The American Civil War comes to an end.

The First American Robbery

1866: Robbers board a train near Seymour, Indiana and attempt to break into a safe. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency traces the crime to the Reno Gang.

Payroll Theft

Payroll shipments become a major target of train robbers. However, if the thieves are unable to steal transportation goods, they enter passenger cars and rob travelers of their jewelry and money.

Subterranean railways, subways, didn’t become widespread until around 1900 when electric trains removed the smoke problem.

Transportation Reconstruction

Many transportation routes had been damaged during the U.S. Civil War. The United States provides funds and land grants to repair and build new railways with steel tracks.

Robber Barons

Some American businessmen use ruthless tactics and government corruption to get rich from the railroad business. They are nicknamed Robber Barons.

Ninth Avenue Elevated Line

1868: West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway builds an experimental above ground railway track in New York City. It is the first elevated railway in the city.

Railroad Boom

Due to government funding, about 33,000 miles (53,000 km) of new track are laid across the United States. After agriculture, the railroad industry becomes the second largest employer in the nation.

The term Robber Baron is derived from the German word Raubritters, which means robber knights. They were Medieval German lords who charged illegal tolls to cross their land.  

Great Egyptian Canal

Egypt approves the building of an artificial waterway to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. It would reduce the journey between the Atlantic and Indian ocean by about 7000 KM (4300 miles).

Forced Labor

Over 30,000 people work on the Egyptian waterway on a daily basis, with 1.5 million people employed over its construction period. Thousands of workers die, mainly from epidemics.

The Suez Canal

1869: After 10 years of construction, the 120 miles-long Suez Canal is officially opened in Egypt. The total cost of the project is $100 million ($1.7 billion today).

Statue of Light

French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi asks the Egyptian government to let him build a massive sculpture by the canal called Egypt Bringing the Light to Asia. However, the project never materializes.

Suez is derived from the Egyptian word for Beginning and refers to the port at the head of the Red Sea.

Auguste Bartholdi went on to sculpt the Statue of Liberty, which was erected in 1886. The idea was inspired by Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian statues, especially the Colossus of Rhodes.

The Last Spike

After 1,756 mi (2,826 km) of track construction, the Last Spike of the Pacific Railroad is ceremonially nailed in at Promontory Summit in Utah. It marks the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

Great Indian Railway

1870: The Great Indian Peninsula Railway connects with the East Indian Railway and completes a great railroad across India. Passengers can travel directly between Bombay and Calcutta.

Franco-German War

1870-1871: War erupts between the Second French Empire and the North German Confederation. The Germans are victorious due to strong leadership and taking advantage of railways and artillery.

Jules Verne

French writer Jules Verne is conscripted as a coast guard in France during the Franco-German War. Inspired by transcontinental railways and the Suez Canal, he writes Around the World in Eighty Days.

Great Chicago Fire

1871: A massive fire ignites in Chicago. It quickly spreads and kills 300 people, destroys 17,000 structures, and does an estimated $222 million in damage (Over $5 billion today).

Great Boston Fire

1872: A great fire ignites in Boston. It spreads quickly and destroys 776 buildings, including the financial district. It does $73.5 million in damage (nearly $1.5 billion today).

Panic of 1873

1873: The Franco-Prussian War, the great American city fires, speculative railroad investments, and monetary reforms trigger a financial crisis in both Europe and the United-States.

The Long Depression

The financial crisis causes a long and severe economic depression in both the United States and Europe. 18,000 businesses, including 89 railroads, go bankrupt in the first few years.

Chicago and Boston were leading transportation and financial centers in the 1800s. The great fires severely damaged the United States economy.

The Panic of 1873 is considered the first International Financial Crisis.

Railroad Depression

The depression ends rapid railway expansion in the United States. Railway companies struggle financially and some file for bankruptcy. Employees are either laid-off or given massive wage cuts.

Great Railroad Strike

1877: When U.S. railroad workers are hit by a third wage cut, a massive strike erupts that stops trains across the country. Some railway facilities are burnt down and nearly 100 people are killed.

Posse Comitus Act

1878: President Hayes uses the U.S. military to subdue the strike. However, a law is enacted which limits the federal government from using the military to enforce domestic policies.

Economic Recovery

1878-1879: There is an increase in railway construction and strong agricultural production. The depression comes to an end in the United States, though continues in some European nations.

The Great Railroad Strike is the first nationwide strike in the United States. 

The Long Depression is sometimes viewed as lasting from 1873 to 1896 due to recurring economic problems.

First Electric Tram

1875-1880: Ukrainian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky builds the first electric tramways in Russia. While the experiments are short-lived due to lack of financing, they stir interest around the world. 

Siemen’s Electric

German engineer Werner von Siemens, founder of the Siemens company, experiments with electricity in Berlin. He builds the world’s first electric elevator and electric passenger tram.

Volk’s Electric Railway

1883: The Volk family owns a seaside resort in Brighton, England. They build a short electric railway to serve tourists, but the popular attraction is soon further extended.

Public Trams

Electric trams become a popular form of public transportation around the world. They gradually replace horse-drawn transportation since they don’t require animal housing and feeding. 

Volk’s Electric Railway remains in service to this day and is the oldest operating electric tramway in the world.

Time Zone Debate

Railroad companies are concerned that the United States government will adopt a costly and detrimental time zone system. They meet to establish their own time system. 

American Time Zones

William F. Allen is Secretary of the General Time Convention and the editor of the Traveler’s Official Railway Guide. North American railroad companies decide to adopt his simple five time zone system.

The Day of Two Noons

On November 18th, railroad stations in the United States and Canada reset their clocks to noon for their appropriate time zone. The day is nicknamed the Day of Two Noons.

Time Zone Adoption

1884: Most large cities in North America adopt the railway companies’ time zones. The zones are named Eastern, Central, Mountain, Pacific, and Intercolonial (Atlantic).

The North American time zones were formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918.

Canadian Pacific Railway

1885: Canada completes the construction of its first transcontinental railway. Connecting eastern and western provinces, the 4,600km-long railway is the single-longest railway of its time.

Armagh Rail Disaster

1889: A train with an Irish Sunday school group stalls on a steep incline. The crew divide the train, but the rear train slides back down the track and crashes into an oncoming train.

Chronometer Standards

A failed watch causes a train collision in Ohio. The railway company hires watchmaker Webb C. Bell to establish higher standards for watches. The rules are gradually adopted by other railways in the U.S.

Trans-Siberian Railway

1904: Russia completes the very difficult construction of a long railway across Siberia. The railway is primarily used to transport grain and flour. Many farmers migrate to the region in search of work.

80 people were killed and 260 were injured in the Armagh rail disaster. It is the worst 19th century rail disaster in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

The 9300km Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest passenger railway in the world today.


Railway systems gradually transition to electric and diesel locomotives. Transportation soon sees another major revolution with the invention of the automobile.