Last week we started to look at the history of rail transportation, especially rail transportation with respect to the transport of freight. We touched on the very beginnings of the modern steam engine and rail transport when we looked at inventor Samuel Homfray and his contribution to the progression and development of rail transport. We’ll look closer at the role he played in a bit, but first we need to go back a little further and explore some of the earlier foundations that led to the eventual development of the steam engine and subsequent rail system.
Beginning in the early 1500’s, roads, or trails, made of wooden rails were appearing throughout Germany. These were known as “Wagonways” and were essentially wooden rail paths over which horse-drawn wagons and carts could more easily pass. It prevented the rutting that was common with wagon trails in those times and proved to be a smother ride in general. These trails, the great-grandparents of the modern railway, were merely the roots of what would one day be an industry all its own.
In the 1700’s iron was being used instead of the old, and now antiquated wood rails and wheels of the Wagonways. This continued evolution eventually spawned what would be known as “Tramways” which quickly spread across Europe. Unlike modern forms of freight transportation (both in the world of flatbed trucking and rail transport) the term horsepower was meant quite literally as horses were still providing all the power.
Another substantial development on the road to modern railroads was the invention of the flange. The flange was a lip, or edge, on the wheel which helped the cart to stay securely on the track. This design, like the others mentioned so far, carried over to the more modern form of rail transport that we know today. This progression was fundamental in the building of the rail transport industry and vital to many economic pursuits which marked the later centuries, both in Europe and in America.