Railroads vastly lowered the cost of moving people and goods over land.

Richard Trevithick invented the locomotive engine. However, he never quite created a fully functioning railroad: Trevithick’s locomotive was a literal circus act, pulling children around a track at a circus.

His core innovation was the idea of a high-pressure steam engine. Prior steam engines, invented by James Watt of Boulton & Watt, used atmospheric pressure. That is, the weight of air would compress the piston and steam would expand it. Trevithick’s high-pressure engine, on the other hand, worked like a modern engine, using the fuel to power the pistons to create thrust.

An early Trevithick engine blew up killing four men. An enraged Watt suggested that Trevithick should be hanged though it wasn’t clear if his anger was jealousy, at the high-pressure engine, fear of engines being shunned, or genuine moral outrage.

Furthermore, Trevithick lived nearby (some say he was neighbors with) Watt engineer James Murdoch. It is entirely possible that Murdch helped the illiterate Trevithick build his engine. Murdoch would have been prevented from doing so due to Watt’s distaste for high-pressure engines.

Whatever the reasons, Trevithick died poor, buried in an anonymous paupers grave despite the impact of his innovation to the world.

George Stephenson is generally created as the innovator of the first real railroad. To this day, standard gauge railroad tracks are referred to as “Stephenson gauge track.” Interestingly, Stephenson worked briefly with Trevithick in South America and purchase Trevithick, who was poor, a ticket back to England.

George Stephenson met and arguably built on Trevithick’s work but also engineered much of his own. The first real locomotive engine, called the Blucher, was capable of carrying 30 tons of coal at 40 miles an hour, an unheard of task at the time. Besides building engines, Stephenson also went on to build the infrastructure for them, including countless bridges still standing today.

His son, Robert, took over the business and became enormously wealthy, the first railroad barons. Father and son are buried in Holy Trinity Church, alongside England’s most influential people in history.


Prolific innovator Karl Drais invented the bicycle, first without pedals then, later, with. He also invented the typewriter w/ keyboard, first stenograph, and player-less piano.

Drais was a civil servant ineligible for patent protection but was given patents and a pension. However, he found himself on the wrong side of a Prussian war, going so far as to drop the noble title form his name as a tribute to the French revolution. Acting as a liberal against the royals caused him to eventually die famous but penniless.

In 1839, Kirpatrick Macmillan invented a more modern bicycle, with pedals and a chain that drive the rear wheel.

In 1885, John Starley invented the “safety bicycle,” the first incarnation that looks like a modern bicycle with same-sized spoked wheels, pedals between them, a seat, and a chain. The safety bicycle quickly became enormously popular.

German Gottlieb Daimler added an internal combustion engine to it, creating the modern motorcycle, also in 1885.      

Locomotive (High-Pressure Steam Engine)

The high-pressure steam engine was invented about the same time by Richard Trevithick in the UK and Oliver Evans in the US. Neither man knew about the other.

Richard Trevithick

Trevithick, a mining engineer, built a high-pressure steam-powered car, the “Puffing Devil,” in 1801, taking it for a ride around town, picking up friends. He left it at a pub where they went to celebrate his innovation. While drinking they failed to notice the fire from the steam boiler and the car burnt down.

James Watt, the inventor of the condensing (low pressure) steam engine, believed Trevithick’s high-pressure steam engines dangerous. After one of Trevithick’s early high-pressure steam engines, used as a pump, exploded and killed two people Watt urged Trevithick’s prosecution for murder.  There are rumors that Trevithick’s and Watt’s lead engineer Richard Murdoch were neighbors and may have secretly collaborated building the engine.

Starting in 1802, Trevithick created several high-pressure locomotive steam engines that ran on tracks. These were the earliest trains but none realized commercial success.

Trevithick eventually moved to South America to work on trains for mines where he met railroad baron George Stephenson, who gave him money to return to the UK.

Reproduction of Trevithick’s Locomotive

Historians disagree whether Trevithick died in poverty or merely with little money. He did not meaningfully profit from his engines.

Oliver Evans

American Oliver Evans (automated mills, refrigeration) simultaneously worked on high-pressure steam engines in the US. He built an amphibious vehicle with his high-pressure engine, that “walked” from his shop to the docks, and into the water. It worked as a dredger. Like Trevithick, his high-pressure engines initially failed to gain commercial interest. Later in life, after working through issues with his mill patents, Evans built a steam engine business with his sons. They produced about 100 high-pressure steam engines.


The steamboat opened trade routes within the US and Europe, but especially the early US. The cost of travel throughout the US dramatically decreased while safety and quality increased. The steamboat also allowed upstream river navigation, impossible without paddling, opening vast areas of land to development.

Early Efforts

De Jouffroy allegedly had a predecessor steamboat in 1776. He invented his while in a military prison where he was sent for being wild and unruly. De Jouffroy was denied a license to use his ship and died in poverty in the Hotel des Invalides from cholera.

In 1785, American John Fitch invented the steamboat and demonstrated his steam-powered boat to the Continental Congress. He saw the steamboat as a way to more safely navigate the early US via rivers, after being captured by Native Americans, who handed him to the British, who (nine months later) freed him. Fitch, along with three others, received a narrow patent from the newly created patent office because other innovators, including James Rumsey, had developed a similar type of boat.

Fitch operated a commercial boat service that eventually failed, and committed suicide in 1798. Part of the reason for his failure to commercialize the boat is tension with his investors. Depending upon the narrative, he either married his lead investors mistress, after she became pregnant from the investor, or impregnated his investor’s mistress. Either way, this caused a rift from which he never financially recovered.

William Symington launched a steamboat in Scotland in 1785, creating several iterations and variations for use as a pleasure boat, a canal boat, and a tugboat. He built and patented two entirely different engines, both low-pressure steam-based. Both worked but investors were not interested. His boats were a commercial failure and he abandoned the business, dying in debt.

Robert Fulton

Robert Fulton was an aspiring artist, demonstrating enthusiasm not commensurate with his talent. An American visiting England, he transformed himself into a civil engineer, building canals. For this, he relied on his artistic skills, creating nice paintings to find financing and political support. He went to post-revolutionary France and built a working submarine.

Fulton met American Robert Livingston in France and they formed a partnership to create a steamboat business back in the US. Fulton worked on many small prototypes and eventually built a working model on the Seine. Livingston, a trade ambassador, working with American James Monroe, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, making him especially politically influential on his return to the US.

Livingston lost interest in the boat. In 1805, Fulton changed allegiance from France to England, working with the English navy to build a submarine. His ship never worked but the English paid him £12,000 for the effort. More importantly, the English licensed Fulton the right to purchase a Boulton & Watt engine that, at the time, forbidden for export to the US due to the American Revolution.


Back in the US, in 1806, Fulton used the engine and perfected Fitch’s boat ー using a water-wheel propelled by an engine (the opposite of a mill propelled by a waterwheel) ー and created a successful steamboat service about a decade after Fitch’s death. Despite the waterwheel, Fulton is said to have invented nothing new besides a business model. Rather than relying on patents, Fulton relied primarily on exclusive waterway navigation rights secured by Livingston. Fulton’s first ship, the Clermont, sailed on Aug. 17, 1807.

Fulton became a shipping baron and went into countless history books, wrongfully, as the innovator of the steamboat. Henry Miller Shreve eventually busted Fulton’s river monopoly via litigation and introduced high-pressure steam engines. “Never,” wrote Fulton, “did a single encouraging remark, a bright hope or a warm good wish, cross my path,” Fulton said about his work to create a commercial steam-engine business (Evans, Harold. They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators.)


Parachutes lowered the risk of flight, encouraging innovation in flying.

In 1782, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot air balloon from the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette — the last of the French aristocracy who would be beheaded during the revolution — watched as the balloon lifted in the air. In the basket was a sheep, duck, and rooster but no people.

The balloon ride lasted about eight minutes and landed not far away, the sheep, duck, and rooster no worse for the wear.

While the balloon ride seemed like great fun, the royals quickly realized there were military advantages being able to float above a battleground. At the very least, reconnaissance would be revolutionalized but — assuming the winds drifted in the correct direction — bombs could also be dropped.

There was one major problem. Whereas the sheep, duck, and rooster had no say about their flight, people were not as enthusiastic. The idea of a person flying like a bird was entirely alien. People at the time didn’t even understand how the balloons remained aloft, believing they remained aloft due to the air being expelled.

A solution was needed to create confidence so people would be willing to climb into the newfound contraption.

In response, on Dec. 26, 1783, Louis-Sebastien Lenormand jumped from Montpellier observatory to demonstrate the first successful parachute. It worked and he lived to talk about it.

In 1797, balloonist Andre-Jacques Garnerin jumped from a hot air balloon, demonstrating the first use of a high-altitude parachute jump. Garnerin was the Official Aeronaut of France, a military title despite that is sounds like a dessert.

Image result for Andre-Jacques Garnerin

Besides being the first to jump from a balloon with a parachute, he was also the first person to bring a woman, Citoyenne Henri, on an untethered balloon flight. French officials banned the flight due to concerns about the two being the first to join the Mile High club. Garnerin ignored the ban and the flight was uneventful. “There was no more scandal in seeing two people of different sexes ascend in a balloon than it is to see them jump into a carriage,” he later said.

Later, in 1815, Garnerin’s niece Élisa made a business charging people to watch her parachute out of balloons. Altogether, she parachuted out of balloons 39 times, never hurting herself.

Related image

Hot Air Balloon

Thanks to a stunt by the Montgolfier brothers, people finally flew. Well, actually a few animals left the ground but people weren’t far behind.

The balloon wasn’t especially practical, since it couldn’t be guided, but led the way for future innovations plus allowed a new perspective on the world. Despite that it was more of a novelty, the French did use hot air balloons in various wars and skirmishes.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette witnessed the first passenger balloon flight that left from the Palace of Versailles on Sept. 19, 1782. The basket carried a sheep, duck, and rooster but no people. The ride lasted eight minutes and landed about 3km away after running out of fuel.

Marine Chronometer

This device, an accurate clock that works on ships, allows sailors to much more accurately navigate. Before this innovation, sailors had to guess, and it was common for ships to miss their destination on a journey by hundreds of miles. This device reduced the risk and cost of long journeys by ship, lowering the cost of long-distance trade. Modern GPS also relies on extremely accurate timers.


Sun and star positioning allowed ships to determine latitude with reasonable accuracy but not longitude. Before the marine chronometer, the only way to determine longitude required a highly accurate clock. Except that the only clicks in existence relied on pendulums, which do not work at sea. Due to this, sailors often veered off course by a long distance. It was not unheard of to sail to the wrong country, which might be at war with a ships intended destination.

In one notable accident, the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707, England lost four ships and 1,400-2,000 men after a longitude navigation error. After that, the English parliament floated a £20,000 prize (an enormous amount of money) to anybody who could make an accurate clock that worked at sea.

Pushback From Professionals

Harrison, a self-educated clockmaker, built a spring-loaded clock that enabled sailors to accurately determine the longitude making navigation more precise and safer. Harrison built four versions, H1-H5[1], over 46 years. Harrison’s clock was so accurate and reliable that even the earliest prototype continues working today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mRTMZ3pTtM

Despite that Harrison’s clock repeatedly passed tests, aristocratic judges rejected it. The judges were members of an exclusive click making society, Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. As a self-taught inventor, Harrison did not belong and they argued his clock failed to meet their criteria. Modern engineers have determined these rejections were in bad-faith: that Harrison’s clock worked.

Capt. James Cook attributed his ability to circumnavigate the globe to Harrison’s H4 clock. Despite this, the clockmaking judge panel refused to agree the clock was good enough. Eventually, a portion of the prize was paid as outraged legislators and King George III intervened, but Harrison was never awarded the entire prize.

[1] H1-H3 were large spring clocks; pendulum style clocks that used springs. H4-5 were timepieces.

Caravel Oceanic Ship

Before the Caravel, ships were limited to coastal navigation. The Caravel, with its relatively small hull and large sails, enabled long-distance navigation over large bodies of water; it was the jetliner of its era. Invented in the mid-1400s, the Caravel — among other things — enabled Columbus to navigate from Europe to North America. Other famous Caravel explorers include Diogo Cāo, Bartolomeu Dias, and Miguel Corte-Real.

The Caravel had to types of sails, lateen which allowed it to navigate close to shore and Atlantic; heavy sails used for long-distance navigation. This flexibility made the Caravel lower cost than larger, slower ships, affording a substantive trading and military advantage to Portugal and Spain, which both quickly transformed into world powers of their day.

As time went by, sails evolved from triangular to square shapes, that are familiar in medieval drawings. Eventually, the more efficient Carrack ship superseded the Caravel.