Swifter Than a Bird Flies: An Astonishing Account of Riding the First Passenger Train and How the Invention of Railroads Changed Human Consciousness
By Maria Popova
“That is our condition, a culmination of millennia of evolution in human societies, technologies, and habits of mind,” James Gleick wrote in contemplating our civilizational enchantment with speed. But the most fertile seed of those habits of mind was planted by the technologies that emerged in one particular blink of a period — the first half of the nineteenth century. And the most consciousness-confounding of those technologies was the railroad, which suddenly compressed space and time in ways previously unimaginable. Until then, the limits of speed came from nature untampered with by human ingenuity — horses were the fastest mode of traversing space, pigeons the fastest medium of communication.
Everything changed when the first passenger railroad opened on September 15, 1830, furnishing the closest sensation to flying human beings had yet experienced. Nothing had reconfigured the temporal dimension of the human mind more dramatically since Galileo invented timekeeping and the reverberations of that revolution, which led to the invention of time zones, are still being felt today.
Three weeks earlier, on August 26, the British actress Fanny Kemble (November 27, 1809–January 15, 1893) — a theater sensation not yet twenty-one, who would go on to become a prolific and gifted writer — was offered an exclusive preview of this astonishing technology. Shortly after she took a ride on the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad, Kemble recounted the thrilling drama of the experience in a lengthy and spirited letter to a friend.
The letter, originally published in Kemble’s Records of a Girlhood and later cited in River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (public library) — Rebecca Solnit’s incomparably illuminating account of how “the annihilation of space and time” changed our consciousness — remains the most vivid and articulate first-hand account we have of just how profoundly the railroads altered the human experience.
A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies… And now I will give you an account of my yesterday’s excursion. A party of sixteen persons was ushered, into a large court-yard, where, under cover, stood several carriages of a peculiar construction, one of which was prepared for our reception. It was a long-bodied vehicle with seats placed across it, back to back; the one we were in had six of these benches, and was a sort of uncovered char à banc. The wheels were placed upon two iron bands, which formed the road, and to which they are fitted, being so constructed as to slide along without any danger of hitching or becoming displaced, on the same principle as a thing sliding on a concave groove. The carriage was set in motion by a mere push, and, having received, this impetus, rolled with us down an inclined plane into a tunnel, which forms the entrance to the railroad. This tunnel is four hundred yards long (I believe), and will be lighted by gas. At the end of it we emerged from darkness, and, the ground becoming level, we stopped. There is another tunnel parallel with this, only much wider and longer, for it extends from the place which we had now reached, and where the steam-carriages start, and which is quite out of Liverpool, the whole way under the town, to the docks. This tunnel is for wagons and other heavy carriages; and as the engines which are to draw the trains along the railroad do not enter these tunnels, there is a large building at this entrance which is to be inhabited by steam-engines of a stationary turn of mind, and different constitution from the traveling ones, which are to propel the trains through the tunnels to the terminus in the town, without going out of their houses themselves.
Here, Kemble offers a testament to the nature of metaphor as an anchor for the new into the old, for the unknown into the known — this unprecedented technology, born into an alien context of its own making, had to be made comprehensible by rooting it in creaturely familiarity. Kemble writes:
We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make these curious little fire-horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a small platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her being thirsty for fifteen miles, — the whole machine not bigger than a common fire-engine. She goes upon two wheels, which are her feet, and are moved by bright steel legs called pistons; these are propelled by steam, and in proportion as more steam is applied to the upper extremities (the hip-joints, I suppose) of these pistons, the faster they move the wheels; and when it is desirable to diminish the speed, the steam, which unless suffered to escape would burst the boiler, evaporates through a safety-valve into the air. The reins, bit, and bridle of this wonderful beast is a small steel handle, which applies or withdraws the steam from its legs or pistons, so that a child might manage it. The coals, which are its oats, were under the bench, and there was a small glass tube affixed to the boiler, with water in it, which indicates by its fullness or emptiness when the creature wants water, which is immediately conveyed to it from its reservoirs. There is a chimney to the stove, but as they burn coke there is none of the dreadful black smoke which accompanies the progress of a steam vessel. This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat, was then harnessed to our carriage, and, Mr. Stephenson having taken me on the bench of the engine with him, we started at about ten miles an hour. The steam-horse being ill adapted for going up and down hill, the road was kept at a certain level, and appeared sometimes to sink below the surface of the earth, and sometimes to rise above it. Almost at starting it was cut through the solid rock, which formed a wall on either side of it, about sixty feet high.
From this descriptive account Kemble now moves to the emotive, conveying the monumental shift in human perception and sensation that the railroad was about to precipitate in the whole of humanity:
You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses; and when I reflected that these great masses of stone had been cut asunder to allow our passage thus far below the surface of the earth, I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw. Bridges were thrown from side to side across the top of these cliffs, and the people looking down upon us from them seemed like pigmies standing in the sky… After proceeding through this rocky defile, we presently found ourselves raised upon embankments ten or twelve feet high; we then came to a moss, or swamp, of considerable extent, on which no human foot could tread without sinking, and yet it bore the road which bore us… We passed over it at the rate of five and twenty miles an hour, and saw the stagnant swamp water trembling on the surface of the soil on either side of us… It was lovely and wonderful beyond all words.
The carriage … was set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies (for they tried the experiment with a snipe). You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible, too. I could either have read or written; and as it was, I stood up, and with my bonnet off “drank the air before me.” The wind, which was strong, or perhaps the force of our own thrusting against it, absolutely weighed my eyelids down. (I remember a similar experience to this, the first time I attempted to go behind the sheet of the cataract of Niagara; the wind coming from beneath the waterfall met me with such direct force that it literally bore down my eyelids, and I had to put off the attempt of penetrating behind the curtain of foam till another day, when that peculiar accident; was less directly hostile to me in its conditions.) When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description; yet, strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.
Kemble ends her account by returning to her mare metaphor, proving once again that we thinking animals do indeed think with animals:
This brave little she-dragon of ours flew on… When I add that this pretty little creature can run with equal facility either backward or forward, I believe I have given you an account of all her capacities.
Kemble remained enchanted by trains. In 1833, while touring in Boston, she traveled to the city’s southern suburb of Quincy for the unveiling of the Granite Railroad, America’s first commercial railway, and recorded the experience in her journal with exuberant admiration. Well before the end of the century, railroads had transformed humanity so profoundly that the previously science-fictional feat of circumnavigating the globe in eighty days became possible.
Complement with Rebecca Solnit on how the rise of railroads catalyzed the invention of motion pictures.
Published August 26, 2016