How Have Steam Giants Revolutionized Transport and the Way People Travel

In the 19th century, long-distance travel was challenging and dangerous as the roads were muddy and rutted. Horses were the primary means of transportation; many people also traveled by foot or public coach. People rarely traveled far home.

All this changed after the invention of steam engines which made traveling faster, safer, cheaper, and more accessible. These advances in steam technology forever changed the world of transportation. Here is a brief history of how steam power changed the ways we travel. Let’s explore.

The Beginning of the End for Horse-Drawn Vehicles

Before the 19th century, people and goods traveled at a snail’s pace. Those who could afford to ride in a horse-drawn carriage or coach were lucky because the journey from one town to another could take days or weeks on foot. However, the horse-drawn carriage had its limitations. These were not easy to control, particularly when pulling heavy loads, and they were not very fast.

Others traveled by boat, relying on the wind, currents, and oars to propel them forward. Traveling on a river against the current was difficult as you needed more manpower.

The invention of steam technology transformed transportation as steam engines were put on boats, cars, motorcycles, and trains. With a steam engine, ships could travel upstream with ease.

People used steam-powered trains for long-distance travel, but they were not suitable for short trips because of the fuel they consumed. Automobiles, buses, and airplanes have now replaced steam-powered trains.

However, some steam-powered trains are still in use today. One of the operating steam giants is  Union Pacific 4014, also called “Big Boy.” It was built in 1941 by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) of Schenectady, New York. You can check out more information about the Union Pacific’s Big Boy on Steam Giants. It’s a tourist train that uses steam engines to transport people on scenic journeys.

Making Travel Faster and Safer

Cajon (vicinity), California. A Union Pacific Railroad train headed for San Bernardino – Library of Congress

Before the invention of steam engines, goods and passengers were transported mainly by water or road. Horses could only travel a few miles before needing to rest.

The invention of the steam engine dramatically changed transportation. Steam giants could travel up to 30 miles an hour, while horses could only travel 10 miles an hour. By water, traders had to rely on wind power and human power, slashing the time in half. 

How Do Steam Giants Work?

"H" class locomotive
Mrs. Viola Sievers, one of the wipers at the roundhouse giving a giant “H” class locomotive a bath of live steam, Clinton, Iowa. – Library of Congress

You may have noticed that a train’s engine is much bigger than your average car. A train has a steam engine whose size gives it the power to run on tracks with much higher grades.

5 Reasons Why Trains Are Key To The...

Thomas Newcomen built the first steam locomotive in 1712. Although it’s still in use, it has been replaced by more advanced models.

A steam locomotive is powered by heat from burning coal or other fuels inside boilers. Steam is then passed through horizontal cylinders called pistons that move back and forth under pressure from a water-cooled crankpin. As the pistons oscillate against each other, they create linear motion, which turns the wheels at the end of each piston stroke.

How Did Steam Giant Impact Society?

Travel poster shows steam engine pulling cars through Bozeman Pass.
North Coast Limited in the Montana Rockies Northern Pacific, North Coast Limited / Krollman – Library of Congress

Before the invention of steam engines, people traveled the same way for centuries. The rich and noble rode in coaches, but most people walked or rode on horseback.

People could only dream of traveling the world and seeing faraway places, but the invention of steam-powered trains changed that. This new technology allowed people to travel farther than before and stay connected with their families.

They could now return home more often and quickly. It also made it possible for people to go on holiday without worrying about how long it would take them to return home.

The invention of the steam train changed society in many ways:

  • Steam trains made travel faster, cheaper, and more comfortable than it had ever been before.
  • They were an excellent way for local businesses to attract customers from far away because they provided cheap transport.
  • They helped open up new areas for trade as they allowed people to travel longer distances without taking these journeys by horse or wagon.
  • The introduction of steam trains led to a boom in tourism.
  • They made it possible for crops to reach people while still relatively fresh.

Impact of Steam Trains on the Economy and Environment

Poster shows steam engine pulling tender and Pullman car on tracks along the a river, probably the Mohawk River
Westward bound, in the Mohawk Valley The Twentieth Century Limited, New York Central Lines / / Walter L. Greene – Library of Congress

The invention of steam engine trains caused a boom in the economy. Before the invention of steam trains, most people traveled by foot. People with money could travel on comfortable and luxurious coaches pulled by horses, but these were expensive and not affordable for most people.

Travel by foot was slow and difficult, which made trade difficult. However, with the invention of giant steam trains, people could travel long distances quickly and easily and carry as many goods as they wanted to trade.

The invention of steam engines meant that people could visit new places, and businesses could transport goods more efficiently and profitably. In the mid-19th century, the price of traveling by train was equivalent to the cost of traveling by stagecoach.

However, the costs of maintaining and operating steam giants were significantly lower than stagecoaches. Steam engine trains could travel longer distances than coaches or carriages. For these reasons, steam engine trains were cheaper than horse-drawn carriages or coaches.

These steam locomotives used wood and coal, ensuring many people got jobs. Rail Travel led to the growth and development of other sectors, such as steel and lumber.

Final Thoughts on Steam Giants’ Impact on America

Steam GIant - Iron Horse
Artist Crystal Goodman’s downtown mural depicting an “iron horse,” a railroad steam engine of the type that served the new Santa Fe Depot in the early 1900s in San Angelo, the seat of Tom Green County, Texas – Library of Congress

The invention of the steam engine revolutionized travel by making long-distance travel more possible. Before the invention of steam giants, people rarely traveled farther than 20 miles from home.

People could travel long distances by train to faraway lands and visit family members who lived far away. The steam giants also revolutionized manufacturing and industrial production. The invention of steam engines brought about a new era in technology and travel.

Featured Image – Photo by Gabriela Palai: https://www.pexels.com/photo/train-with-smoke-507410/

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