Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/July 1885/Railroads, Telegraphs, and Civilization


By Herr C. HERZOG.

THERE has hardly been a more quiet decade in the political history of the nineteenth century than the one between 1830 and 1840. Yet that decade was the cradle of a new epoch, in which inventions first came into view, or were brought to practical completion, which have had a deeper and more permanent influence than any political event could have upon the shaping of human society. The first steam-railroad in Europe was built in the beginning of this decade, after George Stephenson had solved the problem of the locomotive in 1829. In 1833 Gauss and Weber fixed the first telegraph-wire between the Observatory and the Physical Cabinet in Göttingen, and thereby laid the foundation of electro-magnetic telegraphy, building on which Morse in 1836 invented the writing-telegraph. In this year, 1836, also, the first screw-steamer was built in England, and the transatlantic steam-traffic was opened two years later, or in 1838.

Only a few sharp and enlightened minds could have been able at that time to form a conception of the effects which these discoveries were destined to exercise upon the world; but their development from those feeble beginnings to the present day has immeasurably surpassed the most sanguine expectations.

The length of the railways, of which three hundred and thirty-two kilometres were in operation in 1830, had risen in 1883 to more than 444,000 kilometres; and, if the lines were joined one to another, they would have gone around the earth in its longest circumference more than ten times! Like a net, the meshes of which are continually drawing closer together, their lines are woven over all the countries of Europe; in both Americas, they have made way into the hitherto pathless wilderness; they have climbed the Rocky Mountains of the North and the Cordilleras of Peru, and have broken through the nation-dividing walls of the Alps; the largest streams of the earth wear the yoke of their bridges; in Southern Africa, in the East Indies, and in Japan, they are pressing unintermittingly into new regions, and even in the Chinese Empire trial-surveys are making for advantageous routes.

Steamship navigation has grown on a similarly grand scale. Nearly ten thousand steamers, with a capacity of seven million tons, traverse the ocean, and connect all parts of the earth with one another. Independent of wind and tide, they maintain communications with a swiftness, security, and regularity rivaling those of the railways, whose complement they are in providing for the world's trade.

More rapidly and extensively than both of these has the telegraph taken possession of the world. The conductor which, in 1833, connected the study-rooms of two German scholars, has in fifty years spread out into a network of wires that incloses the earth. The length of the telegraph lines is estimated now at nearly a million kilometres, and the length of the wires at more than double that number. They stop for no obstacles, but find their way over mountains covered with eternal snow, through deserts, and across rivers. Even the sea does not stop them. More than seven hundred submarine cables bear messages over the bottom of the ocean with a speed outstripping that of the thought in which they originated. Hard as it was fifty years ago even approximately to imagine the impending development of the young discoveries and their influence, it is just as hard now to comprehend them in their fullness. The majority of living people take them for granted, and have no further thought about them. Railroads and telegraphs have been so much a matter of course to them from their childhood up that they can hardly conceive that it was ever different. But he whose memory goes back more than a generation, or whoever has traveled in countries where mules or oxen are the only means of transportation, can realize the difference and appreciate the importance of the progress, and the relations that exist between numerous phenomena of life and those concerns.

The most important and evident of these phenomena are the changes which railroads and telegraphs as means of trade have directly impressed on economical affairs; their influences have also made themselves felt, partly as consequences of those changes, in part directly, in transformations of social conditions, and of manners and customs.

It is common to the means of transportation moved by steam and to the telegraph that they effect changes of place, the former of physical objects and men, and the latter of thoughts, with power, speed, and security, immeasurably surpassing those of the formerly known means.

We will first consider the exchange of goods which composes trade. In his latest "Review of the World's Economy," Dr. Van Neumann-Spallart estimates the weight of the goods which the railroads collectively carried in 1882 at about 1,200,000,000 tons; the freight of the steamers was calculated at about half that weight. By far the greater part of these masses of goods have been set in motion by trade in order to place them where they could be made of use. For this reason, the figure of the weight, although the contemplation of it overtaxes our limited powers of conception, gives quite as little idea of the meaning of this enormous movement as does the knowledge of the weight of the blood circulating in the body, with which it is customary to compare this trade, an explanation of the effect of its flow.

The extension of trade may be considered as to space and as to variety of articles. In the former respect, all parts of the earth have been drawn within the circle of exchanges, even those which formerly lay quite outside of such connections, either because they were thinly inhabited or too difficult of access; and the trade resources within civilized lands have been greatly expanded as the improvement of transportation facilities has compensated for the difference between the former cost and the present advance. The quantity of the goods used in trade and the variety are increased, or at least become available for whole classes of consumers, to whom their use was formerly forbidden on account of their price. Our daily life affords abundant examples of such articles. They are exemplified in the variety and prices of our food resources, in the fashions of our clothing, in our architecture, and in the warming and lighting of our houses. Coffee, tea, spices, and other products of the tropics, which were formerly rare among the wealthy, are now set upon the tables of the people, and are objects of general use. The European demand for wheat brings into competition steamers from Northern and Western America, Chili, the states of the La Plata, and India.

In clothing, the moderation of price resulting from the cheapened transportation of the raw materials and the wider distribution of the fabrics come more into view than the introduction of new or hitherto unknown or inaccessible materials, of which jute is the only example we now recollect. That silk, which was formerly a mark of wealth, is now worn by women of only moderate means, and cotton goods, which were articles of luxury a hundred years ago, are made into everybody's shirts and bedclothes, are in no small part due to the cheapness and speed of freight-carriage as well as to the increased facilities for manufacturing them afforded by the introduction of steam machinery.

The improvements which railroads and steamers have made possible in our buildings are also obvious, in the use of solid materials in regions far from the quarries. The coals with which we warm our houses and from which we derive our gas-lights, and the petroleum which burns in the lamps of the man of small means, articles which have become indispensable in modern life, but the use of which was formerly forbidden in all but the narrow regions of their productions, are now carried into the most remote mountain-valleys and across oceans, to wherever men live.

As railways and steamers perform the hard, steady, physical work of trade, so the telegraph assists the mental work of its service. Of the more than a hundred million telegrams which the electric wires carry over the earth yearly, by far the greatest part concern affairs of trade. The telegraph is the medium of all important communications in wholesale trade, and speculation could hardly exist without it. A commercial solidarity covering the whole globe has been built upon it, and the present generation for the first time sees a world-trade. The connection is most evident in transactions in goods of large consumption, and is manifested in the tendency to equalization in prices and in the rates of discount. The price of the staple articles of commerce is fixed in the market of the world. The price of wheat is determined every day by the telegraphic reports to Chicago of the day's transactions in the principal places on the globe where wheat is handled, and the price of cotton in a similar manner at New Orleans and Liverpool; and in all financial transactions the most remote commercial centers respond to one another with a facility and celerity that can hardly be excelled by those with which two houses separated only by the Thames could communicate.

This extension of quick communication over the whole globe has been attended with the further advantages of making commercial products accessible to the largest possible circle of consumers, of making capital, which flows where it can be applied with the most profit, easily available at such spots, and in the acquisition of a number of storage points whence goods can be dispatched with but little delay to the places where there is a demand for them. Conditioned upon these circumstances are the general decline of interest and the easier avoidance or quicker relief of the distress which may arise in single countries or districts from the temporary scarcity of some particular necessity. Railroads and steamboats have made the prevalence of real famine and the misery associated with it impossible so long as any purchasing power exists in a country or a city. Speculation, so much abused, while it looks out first for its own interests, takes care to compensate for local failures of crops by sending in timely supplies, and has in railroads and telegraphs ready and powerful instruments for its enterprise. That many men still actually suffer from hunger is not to be denied; but it nevertheless appears now to be impossible for the most of the world that a local scarcity of food arising from dearth or any disaster shall not be immediately remedied from without.

This wide community of interests also has its shadows. The ease with which large quantities of goods can be carried from countries where they have accumulated in excess under favoring conditions, to regions where this production is not equally favored, is fraught with disadvantages to the local producers by depreciating the prices of their goods when the circumstances are already hard for them. The depressing competition of American and Indian wheat in the European markets, which the home farmers lament with so much reason, is a striking example of this. Still more serious is the rapidity with which the effects of a commercial crisis occurring anywhere are felt in all markets. But these negative effects of solidarity of interests, hard as they may bear at times upon individuals, are insignificant as compared with the advantages it brings to the general welfare.

Apace with the widening of the trade in goods, has production reached an unprecedented development, and this as regards quantity and variety and quality. If Industry knew what it was doing when in 1829 it offered a prize for a locomotive-engine available as a draught power, its knowledge has brought it rich fruits. With that invention it gained a basis for increased production, and made it possible to bring together the raw material and the power at points where human skill and the other favorable conditions for production were found. The railroad carried coal and lime to the iron-mines, and cotton to the valleys where men's hands and valuable water-powers were waiting to be used; blast-furnaces and forges rose here, spinning and weaving establishments there. Industry was released from its bondage to the few spots where all the conditions favorable to its development existed together: and became mobile. It was enough after that if any one of those conditions was given in any place; what was wanting could be supplied at relatively small expense by means of the railway. Thus have great industries developed themselves mainly under the operation of these agencies. The remarkable phenomena in the economical field connected with these enterprises are the division of labor and the tendency to the equalization of wages, both as between different places and as against fluctuations in the prices of goods; the former prominently exemplified in the confinement of particular enterprises to special branches of production; the latter favored by the easy migration of laborers from place to place, and the rapid spread of news of advances in wages, as well as by the possibility of coalitions against uneven scales.

Just as a community of interest has been produced in the world's trade by the operation of railroads and telegraphs, so it has been in industries. Every advance in technics shortly becomes known and common, while those who are backward in taking it up suffer during the transition. On the other hand, local crises are felt by related industries far from the place of their origin, till, in fact, the distance becomes so great that the market is protected against the effects of the shock by the cost of transportation. But here, again, the flexibility and efficiency of the means of communication are of great help in overcoming such crises and equalizing their mischievous consequences.

The movement of persons has undergone quite as important a growth as that of goods. In the "Review of the World's Economy," already named, the number of passengers carried by all the railroads in all parts of the world, in 1882, is estimated at 2,400,000,000, or an average of six and half million a day. The absolute number of passengers carried on steamers is smaller; but here, as was also the case with goods, they are carried for longer distances, and more days' journeys, than on railroads; so that, estimated by the mile or the day, the amount both of freight and passenger work the steamers do will appear to much better advantage.

The significance of the facilitation of passenger transportation is derived principally from its effects on social conditions, civilization, and customs. One of the most important of these effects is illustrated in emigration, which has assumed grand dimensions under the operation of the new methods of communication. Of the twelve and a half million emigrants who went to the United States between the recognition of their independence and 1883, not more than a million belong to the time previous to the establishment of regular passenger communication by steamer with Europe, about 1844. As a result of the establishment of this method of communication, and of the building of the railroads that opened the Mississippi Valley and the western part of the continent, emigration assumed colossal proportions. Besides the amelioration of the voyage, which has become an affair of not more than ten or twelve days for emigrant-vessels, the improved fare, the cheaper rate of passage, and the punctuality and increased safety of the transit, may be marked as circumstances contributing to this result.

The difficulties of the land-journey were formerly hardly less formidable to emigrants seeking the interior of the country than were those of the sea-voyage. Weeks and even months might be spent in reaching the end of the journey, while the traveler had to do without everything he could not take along with him, or else to procure it at the expense of great trouble and cost. Now the railroad carries one from the port of arrival, in as many days as months were formerly required, to the extreme West; and, finding himself there, he is no longer lost in the wilderness, with nothing but his own efforts to depend upon; but he has a railroad passing at no very great distance, to keep him in constant communication with civilization. To these great impulses may be added the increased facilities for coming and going within their own country. Formerly the poor man was tied to his threshold by the impossibility of obtaining the means to get away. Now, at an expense of time and money relatively trifling, he is able to go and seek other places where he may find better fields for the exercise of his powers and easier conditions of existence. In this way the condition of the poorer and the laboring classes has been immeasurably altered. Hence we see a streaming of working-men toward the centers of great industries, large towns growing up, labor become scarce in the agricultural districts, and the industrial organizations undergoing a revolution. The labor market has undergone the same kind of extension as the market for goods; and skilled labor has become more and more a thing of merchandise, the price of which is regulated by the larger conjunctures of business. The personal relation between laborer and employer, which formerly, at least in handicraft work, had somewhat the aspect of a family relation, has been dissolved or relaxed.

We have also to speak of the services which the post has rendered. They are by no means limited to the economical field, but they are most evident there. Trade and industry, and all economical life, could hardly be thought of to-day without the co-operation of the post. And that it has surely, effectively, and abundantly contributed to their advancement, to a degree that appears wonderful to us, has again been made possible only by the use of railroads, steamers, and telegraphs. Neither the relatively small postage rate within a single state nor the moderate rate of the Postal Union, the establishment of which represented one of the most remarkable stages in the progress of civilization, would have been possible without these vehicles, as the always ready, cheap, and indefatigable bearers of our correspondence.

So dependent upon one another are all the factors of human life that we should expect to observe the effects of the agencies we have been considering upon all, and we do so observe them, most prominently, perhaps, besides the points on which we have remarked, upon the modern methods of war. The steamer has within the last thirty years taken the place of the sailing-vessel in the navies of all countries to such an extent that the latter is only exceptionally used for warlike purposes. Connected with this change are changes in the form and handling of the guns, armoring, the introduction of turret-ships, and modifications of naval tactics.

While the locomotive has not been made a direct arm, railroads and telegraphs have greatly changed the aspects of war on land. With their help, the mobilization of the army and the concentration of its scattered divisions at the point selected for attack or defense are accomplished in a space of time that is almost as nothing compared with what was required to move troops by the old method. The skillful and energetic use of these helps gives, under some circumstances, an impetus that may be decisive for the issue of the war. They are no less important during the progress of the war, in that they are useful for the forwarding of troops and camp-supplies. The army that controls the railroads is master of the field. It is for the general so to manage the movements of troops by their aid that his forces shall at any given time be superior to those of the enemy at an appointed place, and either compel them to retreat or to fight under unfavorable circumstances. Modern strategy, therefore, consists no little in having knowledge and skill enough to operate with the railroads as the most important factors of movements and the actions, in which, with modern arms, multitudes of men are of more effect than personal bravery, as never to strike except where and when he knows that his forces are superior. It is also an important consideration that provisions and ammunition and re-enforcements can be steadily supplied to the army by means of railroads, so as to keep it constantly effective, even in the enemy's country; and that the wounded can be carried away from the neighborhood of the battle-field to hospitals far back, or to their homes.

While it is true that wars have in these days become more bloody, it can also be said that they are shorter and, in a certain sense, more humane; the latter, not only in the fact that the victims of battle receive better care, but also that the peaceful population of the country visited by war are, by means of the improved facilities for communication, spared the burden of maintaining the invading army. The greater part of the cruelty and barbarity of former wars arose from the fact that the troops had to be supported by the land in which they were encamped, and the necessity of their taking care of themselves excluded all consideration for the people. War is still a direful scourge; but the arrangements for provisioning and foraging and the system of requisitions which railroads have made possible place the military administration in a condition to spare the country from exhaustive drafts, and to prevent excesses by the soldiers. The influence of modern means of intercourse may also be seen in the peaceful relations of states to one another, and in the inner political life of individual states. We shall make no mistake if we assign to railroads and telegraphs an important part in the present tendency to form large states and to give greater consistency to national organizations. Similarity and community of economical interests are not consistent with separation by arbitrary divisions. Material interests require the widest possible conformity of legislation and administration and a strong civil power able to give them external and internal protection, neither of which can be afforded in the small state. Railroads and telegraphs are a political force of the first order to promote in nascent states the accomplishment of their union, in established states the strengthening of the executive and the growth of the political influence of the government. In all civilized states the telegraph and the railroads together enable the government to be advised of all important events on the instant of their happening, and immediately to take whatever measures may be necessary. It is a further consequence that the central power becomes more concentrated, and the individual prerogative and responsibility of the local officers limited; while in smaller states the administrative organization may be simplified by dispensing with intermediate agents.

The effect of railroads and telegraphs upon the civic structure is also manifested in the more lively participation of the people in political life. This happens both in consequence of the increased ease of personal intercourse and through the quickening and increased extent of the exchanges of thought that are furthered by the press and by correspondence. The freer intercourse of candidates with the people whose votes they are seeking, and of deputies with their constituents, has done much to make the people acquainted with public questions in their varying aspects, and interested in them. Much more is done by the periodical press, which now scatters its issues in numbers and with a speed and cheapness that would have been incredible a half-century ago. Other factors are indeed contributing to this condition, but they would be practically of little value in producing these effects were they not accompanied by correspondingly increased facilities for the diffusion of news. It fails to give an adequate idea of the extent of this influence, to state that two and a half milliard copies of newspapers were circulated in 1882 through the Postal Union, and that only an insignificant proportion of these were carried otherwise than by railroad. Most of these journals being political, the part they have in diffusing political intelligence among the people, who depend almost entirely upon them, and in forming their political culture, may be conceived but can not be measured.

This feature also is attended with disadvantages. The newspapers circulating in all classes of society, the number of persons upon whom the formation of that vague force called public opinion depends has become multiplied many times, and in it many are included who have not the previous knowledge requisite to the formation of an intelligent opinion, or capacity to form a real opinion of their own. Consequently, the quality of public opinion has depreciated. It is more easily led into error, and harder to set right. Furthermore, the rapidity with which the telegraph makes it possible to convey news of all important events—and unimportant ones, too—from all parts of the world to all other parts, has given public opinion a taste and a preference for mere matters of fact. The pressure to learn the latest news is stronger than the desire to know events in their order and connections. Thus interest is rather directed to what is striking and sensational, and, responding to this, the papers give to news of that kind space and conspicuousness out of all proportion to its value. Consequently, we have shallowness of public opinion on the one side, exaggeration and unreliability on the other.

In another aspect, railroads and telegraphs have contributed to the increase of knowledge and the expansion of the ideas and conceptions of the people; indirectly by assisting in the circulation of journals that carry knowledge on all kinds of subjects through all the channels of their circulation, and directly by making it possible for people of moderate means, and inducing them, to travel and observe for themselves things and phenomena abroad. When I was a boy, the journey of about thirty miles to the capital of the province was an event for children and parents, which was talked about and prepared for for weeks beforehand, and required a whole day of traveling. People seldom went beyond the boundaries of the province, except on business, or on the occasion of important festivals, or of death. Now we can travel to the sea-coast or the mountains in the same time, and with hardly more expense than it then took to go the thirty miles, and we eagerly use the opportunity to change our scene, whether it be to improve the health a shade, for mental relaxation, for instruction, or for pleasure. The attendance at baths, the rise of summer resorts and air-cures, and furloughs for all classes of officers, have become regular institutions, while they were formerly indulged only in cases of sickness; and the excursions of school vacations, the pleasure-trains and the extra trains on holidays, long wedding tours, excursion parties to foreign lands, or around the world, are evidences of the taste for traveling that modern men feel, and of the ease with which it is gratified. Then there are the journeys to meetings of men of a common calling, to scientific congresses or social unions. There is hardly a condition or a professional society that does not feel the need of bringing its members together, and of holding at different but always agreeable places social unions. To these we may add exhibitions, in which fisheries and agriculture, the industries and the fine arts display and compare their efforts, with their culmination in periodical world's fairs. Without railroads this mobility and this releasing of men from their soil, which answer a deep longing f our nature, would be possible only within the narrowest limits.

It can not be denied that with all this are connected a great enrichment, with new views and feelings, a considerable enlargement of mental scope, and a strong stimulus to mental activity, even where no intention of the kind is entertained. Errors are cleared up and prejudices are overcome. Deficiencies at home are revealed by comparison with what is seen abroad, and all that is recognized as better is imitated and improved upon. Habits are also disciplined. Railroads demand an exact account of time, and require all who use them to conform to their regulations. They train people in the most efficient manner to punctuality, to quick decision, and to the omission of formalities.

The forms of intercourse and family relations are also not slightly affected. It can hardly be said that the influence in the former case is always beneficial. Politeness and regard for fellow-travelers, if they happen to interfere with one's own comfort, are not exactly cultivated with zest by railroad-passengers. But we frequently meet polite and interesting traveling-companions, whose intercourse gives us pleasure. Moreover, railroad-traveling brings persons of different degrees of cultivation together, and is fitted to smooth the forms of intercourse, and to have, on the whole, a refining influence, provided cultivated persons set good examples.

I am uncertain whether heart-connections leading to marriage are often formed on railway-journeys. If we may trust the novelists and playwrights, this is the case. At any rate, railway-traveling has an influence on relations of this kind to the extent that it favors the forming of acquaintances between persons living at a distance from one another, out of which family relations may grow. Marriages certainly are negotiated over a much wider scope than formerly, both within the country of residence and as reaching into foreign countries. Distance offers no obstacle to the father's informing himself concerning the circumstances of his daughter's suitor; and the careful mother can consent to let her child go to places which would formerly be considered out of the world, because she can correspond with her daily; and it only requires a journey of a few hours or days, which also promises a welcome variety to the monotonous life of the parental home, to bring the separated family together again. A change has also come over the course of family life, in which habit and tradition had established fixed customs, whereby the old ways are slowly dissolved and new forms take their place. The prescription of kin, in which the choice of a wife was formerly confined, is relaxed; the old Frankish courting by the parents for the son is out of fashion; the wedding-feast is arranged to suit the railroad-train on which the young couple will begin their journey; fresh blood and strange customs are pressing into the close circle of ancient relationship and stiff usage; they break up the pride of neighborhood narrowness, and make it first tolerant, then inviting to the foreign better usages, against which it had shut itself up, and which it had despised, merely because they were strange.

On the other side, if modern facilities for moving about furnish opportunities for extending our ideas and knowledge, they also lead to superficiality in observation, which loses in depth and thoroughness what it gains in extent. We travel far in a day, but we see only by glances. Between the beginning of the journey and its appointed end the passenger generally stops only as long as the train, or, at very important stations, only over till the next train. What lies between passes before his vision like a scene in a theatre, or is lost while he sleeps. The guide-books furnish all the information he seeks. For many the number of miles they have traveled over is the most important point. It is evident that nothing useful can come from traveling of this kind. Another undeniable result is the neglect of what is near and around us for what is distant. Many people know more of foreign countries than of their own neighborhoods, consequently their attachment for home is weakened. From indifference to disdain is only a step. On this ground are explained the disappearance of old customs, which gave fixedness to social life in the family and the commune, the dissatisfaction with the narrowness of the home, and a relaxation of regard for persons in authority and for older persons, whose experiences, gathered in the narrow home circle, are not allowed to compete with the assumed versatile and superior knowledge of traveled youth. In a wider circle are thus explained the rapid spread of the fashions and a kind of leveling in life and customs. The new styles, which formerly went out very slowly, now spread quickly through all classes, and the differences between country and city are disappearing.

Returning to the public life of society, we find two features in which there seems to be a connection between changes that are going on and the modern conditions of transportation, viz., the democratic tendencies of society, and the prevalence of materialism. The democratic tendency, which is peculiar to the times, does not limit itself to exhibition in state constitutions, but is penetrating the whole social life. In its wider sense it signifies the mergence of class-differences, the abolition of transmitted privileges and inherited exclusiveness, and the assertion of individuality. It is true that this tendency is older than the railroads and telegraphs, and its origin can not be ascribed to them; but it is also true that they have given it a great impulse, to which compulsory education, universal military obligation, and universal suffrage, have equally contributed. Railroads treat all their passengers alike. All must adapt themselves to the same order and regulations. No one can interfere with the time of arrival or departure, or the speed, or the length of stoppages. Even special trains must not interfere with the time-table. In the case of cars of different classes, the only criterion of distinction is that of price; whoever pays the charge can travel in the corresponding class, whether it pleases his fellow-passengers or not, and he receives the same treatment as they. The ideas suggested by such commingling are very apt to be carried into other fields of intercourse.

With the democratizing of society is flowing a parallel current of a practical materialism, which is manifested in a predominance of material interests over ideal ones, in the recognition of egoism as a leading principle in trade, in the estimation of men's deeds, only according to their visible consequences, and in the rejection of all that transcends realism. This drift is not new in human civilization; but it is a new fact that the masses have been drawn into it, and that they aim to make it potent after they have destroyed or reformed the old civil and social order. Its causes are complicated, and are perhaps only indirectly referable to the expansion of means of communication; but they are connected with the results of increased traffic and intercourse, and their operation is re-enforced by them.

It is too soon to speculate as to what will be the end or the ultimate result of these two parallel movements.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Deutsche Rundschau.