Abraham Lincoln and His Internet

Can the history of the railroads teach us a lesson about the new economy?

May 9, 2001

Can the history of the railroads teach us a lesson about the new economy?

English inventor George Stephenson built his first steam-powered locomotive in 1814. Within 15 short years, a much refined version, called “Rocket,” was pulling trains along Stephenson’s 40-mile railway between Liverpool and Manchester — at the brisk rate of 35 miles per hour over short stretches. Spurred on by this and other successes, England built 5,000 miles of railways over the next twenty years.

Traveling time between cities was drastically reduced. The 20-hour coach ride from Bristol to London, thanks to this new technology, was whittled down to just three hours. In that sense, England’s railroads were like the Internet today: a revolutionary technology able to collapse distances and obliterate barriers to communication.

Naturally, Britain’s entrepreneurs were quick to recognize the potential economic benefits of the steam-driven railroads — and helped to spread the new technology around the world. Not surprisingly, perhaps, railroads quickly transformed the vast spaces of India, a colony of Great Britain, and the United States, its former colony.

During the 19th century, about 20% of Britain’s locomotive production went to India. Within seventy years, India was crisscrossed by 25,000 mile web of railroad tracks. As much as they were designed for strategic military reasons, the colony’s railroads also helped break down rigid social barriers. At the turn of the last century, 200 million Indians of all castes traveled annually by train — with high-caste and low-caste passengers seated in the same compartments.

India’s railroad network is still a vital asset today. It has one of the world’s densest and most widespread rail networks — with 8,000 stations at an average distance of five miles. There are now plans to use the rail network’s right-of-way to wire the country for telephone and Internet connections: an ambitious marriage of 19th-century and 20th-century technologies.

In the United States (where the Internet would help fuel the 1990s economic boom), railroads launched the public career of one of the country’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. In 1832, Lincoln was just 23 years old — and making his first bid for public office in the Illinois state legislature. One of his key campaign promises was to build railroads in Illinois — a remarkable thing, since young Abe had never seen a railroad before.

While Lincoln had no realistic ideas of how railroads worked, he knew instinctively that a device that could transport goods and people over great distances would be invaluable to a large, sparsely populated region like Illinois. Lincoln lost the 1832 election, but was voted into the General Assembly four times between 1834 and 1840, where he made good on his promise.

After serving a term in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, Lincoln became a top lawyer for Illinois’ railroads after 1850. Perhaps his greatest moment in the courtroom was his victory in the landmark dispute between railroad and steamship companies over the Rock Island Bridge, the first bridge to cross the Mississippi.

Steamship companies regarded the bridge as a threat to their business interests and wanted it torn down. Lincoln’s victory for the railroads not only ensured the speedier delivery of commodities to customers, it set an important precedent for protecting new technologies from older, entrenched interests. This was a clear case of government having a positive impact.

At about this time, both the Republican and Democratic parties embedded in their platforms the creation of a transcontinental railroad. In other words, the national parties had finally picked up on Lincoln’s vision for an Illinois railroad. And it was equally remarkable, considering that locomotives of the time were still not capable of climbing even mildly steep inclines.

And their vision was soon to become a reality. By 1860, the year Lincoln was elected President of the United States and 28 years after his first efforts to foster the development of a railroad, the U.S. rail network was bigger than that of all others in the world combined. In just eight years after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, U.S. railways doubled in length from 30,000 to 60,000 miles. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promintory Point, Utah.

As with the Internet today, the railway in the 19th century needed visionaries, people all over the world who were willing to experiment and invest so that an instrument of global significance could flourish. And once the momentum got started, the railway — like the Internet today — spread like wildfire around the globe.

How did government help? By giving away money and land, government fostered two necessary conditions: attracting private capital to finance railroad’s expansion and attracting private entrepreneurs to create a bigger and better future.

The underlying lesson in all this is clear: In a time of great change, if you do not think through your vision clearly, you cannot tell the difference between mere activism and real progress.