Technological Nostalgia: The Steam Locomotive

When the steam-powered locomotive was invented, it was the most advanced technology ever developed. In the 19th century, there were all sorts of concerns about the technology, such as what would happen if the locomotive travels faster than 30 miles-per-hour. Doctors of the time thought that it would create a vacuum inside the carriage, causing the lungs of the passengers to explode. Fortunately the doctors were wrong, people can travel faster than 30mph without suffering any ill effects. But it goes to show what people’s attitudes were towards the locomotive. The poet Wordsworth didn’t like them, and had a train track in front of his house rerouted because he thought it ruined his view of nature.

Nowadays we have almost the exact opposite attitude towards steam-powered locomotives. People nowadays enjoy seeing the beauty of nature on steam-powered trains. Today when we see a steam-powered train going through a beautiful rural landscape, we think of the train as a symbol of the quaint countryside. The reason for this is because steam-power is now seen as old-fashioned. Since the 19th century we have developed far more advanced forms of transportation. Electric trolleys, the automobile, diesel locomotives and airplanes all make steam-power rail look outdated. It would be shocking if we see a Boeing 747 in the middle of a flowering meadow, but completely normal if we see a steam-powered train in the same scene.

Part of the romance of the railroad has to do with its macho connotations. In the past, men were worked on the rails were quite tough, and had to deal with the dirt and grime of the smoke of coal-burning engines. Of course, there was the entire hobo tradition of sneaking onto cattle cars for those who don’t have enough money to ride in the passenger compartment.

Ultimately, what steam-powered train represent is an “old-fashioned” world that is lost to us. Most steam-powered trains have shut down operations, and those that are still running cater mostly to tourists. It is a technology that is a bridge between modern and ancient times. The steam engine is not something so ancient that we cannot understand, yet it is clearly an old technology that has become obsolete. Riding on a steam-powered vehicle, we are traveling fast enough to feel like we are traveling on a modern vehicle, yet it still feels like we are participating in a ritual from the past.


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