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Streamliners Timeline

1830 - 1919 | 1920 - 1980


There are 23 miles of railroad in the United States.


May 11: Samuel Morse sends the first long-distance telegraph message from Supreme Court chambers in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, ushering in a new era in communication.


Millard FillmoreSeptember 20: President Millard Fillmore signs the first Railroad Land Grant Act. By encouraging railroad construction in undeveloped territories, particularly in the South and West, the government hopes to attract settlers, increase taxable wealth, and unify and strengthen the growing nation.

There are now 9,000 miles of railroad in the United States.


Telegraphs are now used for dispatching trains.


The growing railroad industry attracts energetic young employees like the Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, who launches his career at the Pennsylvania Railroad as a $35-per-month telegraph operator.


Bessemer converterIn England, Henry Bessemer develops the Bessemer converter, which enables steel to be manufactured inexpensively, an accomplishment for which he is knighted in 1879. The process will be introduced in Troy, New York, nine years later.


There are now 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States.


The Civil War begins. It will be the first war in which railroads play a significant role in transporting soldiers and equipment.


July 1: Congress authorizes the construction of a transcontinental railroad with federal land grants under the first Pacific Railway Act. The Union Pacific will build westward from Omaha, the Central Pacific eastward from Sacramento. In addition, the legislation grants the railroads 10 sections of public domain lands on both sides of the railway. Two years later, the second Pacific Railway Act doubles the size of federal land grants.


Railroad promotional posterThe first domestic steel rails are produced. Steel rails are costly; only the lines with heavy traffic can afford to put them in place. By 1890, the majority of all railroad mileage will be laid with steel rails.

The first railroad sleeping car, designed by George Pullman, appears in the United States. When one of Pullman's cars is attached to the funeral train carrying Abraham Lincoln's body in April, demand for them skyrockets. Two years later Pullman will introduce the refrigerator car.


October 6: In Jackson County, Indiana, the Reno Gang, a band of outlaw brothers, is credited with the first organized transcontinental train robbery in history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, law enforcement officials and passengers consider train robberies a serious threat.


Between 1869 and 1894, five transcontinental railroads will be completed. Transcontinental railroads of the time do not run from coast to coast, but from the Missouri River to the West Coast.

April: 23-year-old George Westinghouse receives a patent for the air brake, which allows trains to stop with fail-safe accuracy. Though skeptics initially ridicule the invention, which earns Westinghouse the nickname "Crazy George," it is quickly embraced, and in July Westinghouse forms the Westinghouse Air Brake Company to manufacture them.

April 28: Central Pacific workers build an astounding ten miles of track in one day, racing to meet the Union Pacific and complete the first transcontinental railroad.

May 10: Union Pacific and Central Pacific officials drive the golden spike at Promontory Summit, in the Utah territory. The spike is connected to a telegraph line, which sends out word of the first transcontinental rail route's completion.


Miles of railroadsThere are now 53,000 miles of railroad in the United States.


The federal government discontinues its Railroad Land Grant policy.


James J. HillWithout any federal assistance, and facing enormous geographic hurdles, railroad builder James J. Hill commences the expansion of his St. Paul, Minnesota-based railroad (which will become the Great Northern Railway Company) across the rugged terrain of the Pacific Northwest.


Thomas Edison and English inventor Joseph Wilson Swan independently devise the first practical electric lights.


There are now 93,000 miles of railroad in the United States.


George Westinghouse perfects the first automatic electric block signal, which is designed to prevent train crashes, increase passenger safety, and move rail traffic more efficiently. Westinghouse's safety devices will have a tremendous impact on the railroad industry.


November 18: The General Time Convention, a railroad trade group seeking to simplify train schedules, replaces local time with standard time in the United States and Canada; four standard time zones go into effect. Prior to this, all trains had run on local times, with each community setting its time independently, which made scheduling connections virtually impossible.


July 3: Karl Friedrich Benz debuts what is considered the world's first practical automobile. Powered by a gas engine designed by Gottlieb Daimler, Benz's three-wheel vehicle is unlike all previous automobiles; gas engines had been added to horseless carriages, but Benz's vehicle is designed from the ground up.


December 12: In response to local and state governments' protests over unregulated rate increases among railroads, Congress passes the Interstate Commerce Act. The legislation establishes the Interstate Commerce Commission to control aspects of the railroad industry, the first in America to be subject to regulation by a federal government agency.


May 1: Nikola Tesla receives a patent for the first alternating-current electric motor. Tesla's motor, purchased by the Westinghouse Company, paves the way for the manufacture of cars and trucks.


Major engineering feats -- and geographical exploration -- continue to characterize the railroads' westward expansion. The Great Northern Railway's bold civil engineer, John F. Stevens, locates the Marias Pass in Montana and builds the railroad through it, traversing the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 5,216 feet. His experiences in the West will prepare him to step in and salvage the largest civil engineering project of his day, the construction of the Panama Canal.


Railroad hubThere are now 164,000 miles of railroad in the United States.


August 10: After 12 years of trying to improve on the efficiency of the steam engine, Rudolf Diesel debuts his internal-combustion engine. It runs on its own power for the first time, but will take another four years to perfect.


November: Ransom E. Olds receives a patent for the horseless carriage, but as yet it poses little threat to railroads. Automobiles are novelties for the wealthy; railway passenger traffic triples between 1896 and 1916.

November 27: Former slave and ex-railroad worker Andrew Jackson Beard invents and patents the Jenny Coupler, the device that does the dangerous job of hooking train cars together. Beard says that his invention will save countless lives and limbs.


There are now 193,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

Inventor-author Frederick Upham Adams convinces the Baltimore & Ohio to build the Adams Windsplitter, an early streamlined train that reaches 85 miles per hour on test runs. By the turn of the twentieth century, Adams has been granted several patents for streamliner designs.


May 23-July 26: Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and his driver, Sewell H. Croker, complete the first coast-to-coast crossing of the North American continent by car. It takes them 65 days to go from San Francisco to New York.

June: Henry Ford founds the Ford Motor Company, an automobile manufacturing company with a goal of mass production done by machines, not men, wherever possible.

Wright BrothersDecember 17: Orville and Wilbur Wright make their first airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


After years of scattered use at different railroads, all-steel passenger cars are now placed in regular service across the country.


Model T FordSeptember 16: Billy Durant incorporates General Motors. Within days, GM buys Buick, and later Oldsmobile and Cadillac.

September 27: Henry Ford introduces his first Model T, a car that will achieve unparalleled popularity and change the automotive industry, and American life, forever.


There are now 240,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

December 17: Charles Kettering develops the first practical self-starter device in the United States.


Ford slashes prices on the Model T after opening his Highland Park, Michigan, assembly line. By 1930, the number of registered cars on U.S. roads will soar to 23 million.

August 20: Sheffield, England, metallurgist Harry Brearley invents stainless steel while investigating the corrosion of rifle barrels for a local small arms manufacturer. Based on its rustless quality and its resistance to food acids and germs, Brearley persuades cutlery manufacturers to adopt it.


National rail mileage peaks at 254,000 miles. Four years later, it will begin to drop, though only by 1,000 miles at first.


Woodrow WilsonDecember 26: Under President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. government nationalizes railroads. The government-run United States Railroad Administration, staffed primarily by railroad men, runs the railroads with the purpose of increasing wartime efficiency. The USRA will function for 26 months.


March 19: The Standard Time Act is passed, instituting the standard time zones that have been in use in America since 1883. The act also implements daylight saving time, in an effort to conserve resources for the war effort.


June 14: Competing for a £10,000 prize offered by London's Daily Mail for a successful transatlantic crossing, Englishmen John W. Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16 hours, 27 minutes.

1830 - 1919 | 1920 - 1980

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