Friday, August 22, 2014

The Age of Steam

A Brief History of the Age of Steam
© 2007 Thomas Crump
288 pages



For most of human history, transportation over land has been prohibitively expensive, limited to highly lucrative goods like silk. Trade grew from the rivers, as did civilization. But in the 18th and 19th century, the advent of industrial technologies, often utilizing steam,  radically transformed society. Not only did wood- and coal-fired engines free factories from the need to locate  beside rivers that powered watermills, but the advent of steam transportation knit cities across the landscape together, creating boundless opportunities for economic expansion. A Brief History of the Age of Steam focuses mostly on steam transportation,  first on boats and then on the rails.  Not surprisingly for an author who also penned A Brief History of Science, it places a lot of emphasis on technical details, like the mechanical workings of the steam engine.  As a rail history, it doesn't compare well to Christian Wolmar's work, since he incorporates both social and technical aspects, but it's a rare history of river steamboats and the rise of oceanic steamers.  A strong point is the close relationship between railroads and imperialism, which he develops.  Even though the writing focuses more on mechanical operations than the human element, the history reads well.  I'm still on the lookout for a naval history of steam transport, however.


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4 comments:

  1. Oh, I've read that! The author is very much a train enthusiast (as you must have noticed) which is why he spent so much of his focus on that. I found the whole thing really quite interesting. Steam power changed *everything*.

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  2. This sounds like a great introduction to the subject. The advent of steam travel was timed perfectly for the expansion of the newly United States of America.

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  3. He makes an important point that the age of steam is still with us -- modern power plants still use it!

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  4. ...as do nuclear ships! They're basically still steam ships just using nuclear power to heat water...

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