Dynamite blows up otherwise difficult to move things, like boulders, mountains, and bedrock. It lowers the cost of removing rocks to make level land and tunnels, railroads, roads, and enables foundations for skyscrapers.

In 1847 chemists Théophile-Jules Pelouze and Ascanio Sobrero had synthesized nitroglycerin but the chemical was unstable and difficult to harness. Nobel encased the nitroglycerin into explosive sticks used for mining, quarrying, construction, and demolition. Nobel also created canons and other weapons: he was an arms dealer. Later in life, he bequeathed much of his wealth to a foundation that, today, gives out the Nobel Prizes.

Judah engineered the first transcontinental railroad before dynamite; workers chiseled the rock away bit-by-bit. It was an extremely time consuming and expensive undertaking.

Nobel did try to send pre-dynamite nitroglycerine to Judah but the box exploded, killing 15 people in San Francisco and leading to a ban on the import and shipment of nitroglycerine in CA.

Transcontinental Railroad


After much debate in Washington, DC, and with the civil war brewing, Judah presented a transcontinental railroad a “Think Big” project. Asa Whitney had lobbied for a western railroad starting in 1847 but got nowhere. Somehow, Judah cut through the other issues (especially slavery) to get attention and became a central plank of the Republican platform.

The hardest engineering challenge was finding a suitable path over the Sierra mountains. Teaming with Daniel Strong, who wanted a road to his small town, Judah found a pass that worked.

Railroad Barons

Judah then needed to raise money for the last part of the railroad. He sold small shares to many people, but his Central Pacific Railroad lead funders included the “Big Four”: Leland Stanford (railroad President), Collins Huntington (VP), Mark Hopkins (Treasurer); Charles “Bull” Crocker called himself a construction supervisor though expressed a desire only to make money. It was Crocker who, during construction, famous hired Chinese laborers. Prominent jeweler and smaller investor James Bailey became Secretary.

Judah was the Chief Engineer; he also played a key role by leading key Congressional committees on railroad funding.

On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the law (written by Judah) providing loan guarantees for the railroad.

The Big Four, and later allies, exercised an option to force Judah to convert his shares to bonds. He retained a repurchase option but, on his way back east to find funding, died of yellow fever.


On May 10, 1869, the railroad was finished. Each of the Big Four made a fortune. Leland Stanford eventually donated much of his wealth, and his large ranch in Palo Alto, for the creation of Stanford University. Crocker famously donated none of his fortune before or after his death.

Besides the Central Pacific Railroad, the Congressional authorization, arranged by Judah, also financed a complementary line, built by Union Pacific, that connected to Central Pacific line.

Since railroad builders were paid, by the government, for each mile of track they laid both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific famously competed to build faster until the lines met.

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.