Perspectives on transport history

I view transport as a crucial structuring condition in society that is perhaps under-appreciated and under-studied. The extension of the Red Line from Harvard Square (its terminus when I was a graduate student) to Davis Square in Somerville a decade later illustrated the transformative power of a change in the availability of urban transportation; residential patterns, the creation of new businesses, and the transformation of the housing market all shifted rapidly once it was possible to get from Davis Square to downtown Boston for a few dollars and 30 minutes. The creation of networks of super-high-speed trains in Europe and Asia does the same for the context of continental-scale economic and cultural impacts. And the advent of container shipping in the 1950’s permitted a substantial surge in the globalization of the economy by reducing the cost of delivery of products from producer to consumer. Containers were a disruptive technology. It is clear that transportation systems are a crucial part of the economic, political, and cultural history of a place larger than a village; and this is true at a full range of scales.

We can look at the history of transport from several perspectives. First, we can focus on the social imperatives (including cultural values) that have influence on the development and elaboration of a transportation system. (Frank Dobbin considers some of these factors in his Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, where he considers the substantial impact that differences in political culture had on the build-out of rail networks in France, Germany, and the United States; link.) Second, we can focus on the social and political consequences that flow from the development of a new transportation system. For example, ideas and diseases spread further and faster; new population centers arise; businesses develop closer relationships with each other over greater distances. And third, we can consider the historiography of the history of transport — the underlying assumptions that have been made by various historians who have treated transport as an important historical phenomenon.

Over fifty years ago L. Girard treated these kinds of historical effects in his contribution to Cambridge Economic History of Europe: Volume VI (Parts I and II), Part I, in a chapter dedicated to “Transport”. He provides attention to the main modalities of transport — roads, sea, rail. In each case the technology and infrastructure are developed in ways that illustrate significant contingency. Consider his treatment of the development of the English road network.

Eventually the English network, the spontaneous product of local decisions, progressed out of this state of disorganization. Its isolated segments were linked up and ultimately provided a remarkably comprehensive network corresponding to basic national requirements. By trial and error and by comparing their processes, the trustees and their surveyors arrived at a general notion of what a road should be. (217) 

(Notice the parallels that exist between this description and the process through which the Internet was built out in the 1980s and 1990s.)

 Similar comments are offered about the American rail system.

The American railroad was the product of improvisation, in contrast to the English track, which was built with great care. At first all that was required was a fairly rough and ready line which could operate with a minimum amount of equipment. Then as traffic increased and profits began to be made, the whole enterprise was transformed to take account of the requirements of increased traffic and of the greater financial possibilities. (232)

Despite all their improvisations and wastage, the American railroads astonished Europe, which saw a whole continent come to life in the path of the lines. The railways opened up America for a second time. By 1850 the east-west link between western Europe and the Mississippi valley was already created by means of the States on the Atlantic seaboard. The supremacy of the Chicago-New York axis had become established, at the expense of the South and of Canada, which were taking more time to get organized. America swung away from a north-south to an east-west orientation. (233)

And here is a somewhat astounding claim:

The northern railways allowed the Union to triumph in the Civil War, which was fought in part to determine the general direction to be taken by the future railways. (233-234)

Also surprising is the role that Girard attributes to the politics of railroads in the ascendancy of Napoleon III in 1851 (239).

Here is Girard’s summary of the large contours of the development of transport during this critical period:

Whatever the course of future history, the century of the railway and the steamer marks a decisive period in the history of transport, and that of the world. Particular events in political history often tend to assume less and less importance as time goes on. But the prophecies of Saint-Simon on the unification of the planet, and the meeting of the races for better or for worse, remain excitingly topical. Man has changed the world, and the world has changed man — in a very short time indeed. (273)

This history was written in 1965, over fifty years ago. One thing that strikes the contemporary reader is how disinterested the author appears to be in cause and effect. He does not devote much effort to the question, what forces drove the discoveries and investments that resulted in a world-wide network of railways and steamships? And he does not consider in any substantial detail the effects of this massive transformation of activities at a national and global scale. Further, Gerard gives no indication of interest in the social context or setting of transport — how transport interacted with ordinary people, how it altered the environment of everyday life, how it contributed to social problems and social solutions. It seems reasonable to believe that the history of transport during this period would be written very differently today.

(Prior posts have given attention to transport as a causal factor in history; link.)

Is a rail network a social structure?

figures: RER map of Paris; E. J. Marey’s graphical representation of Paris-Lyon train schedules, 1885

What role does a rail network play within an adequate ontology of society? Is a rail system primarily a set of physical assets, a set of administrative procedures, or a set of embodied opportunities and constraints for other members of society? The answer is, a transportation system has elements of all of these.

A rail system provides convenient transportation among a number of places, while providing no service at all between other pairs of locations. You can get from Porchefontaine to Sevran Livry with only a change of trains at St. Michel – N Dame in about 30 minutes — whereas from Point X to Point Y there is no convenient transportation connection by Metro or RER. This means, among other things, that some parts of Paris are much more tightly integrated than others. It is possible for residents of arrondissement X to shop and work in arrondissement Y very conveniently, whereas this would not be true for arrondissement Z.

So a rail system certainly has direct effects on social behavior; it structures the activities of the two million or more Parisians by making some places of residence, work, shopping, and entertainment substantially more accessible than other places. And there are a number of other social characteristics that are structured by the commuter rail system as a consequence: for example, patterns of class stratification of neighborhoods, patterns of diffusion of infectious disease, patterns of ethnic habitation around the city, patterns of diffusion of social styles and dialect, … In brief, a rail system has definite social effects. It creates opportunities and constraints that affect the ways in which individuals arrange their lives and plan their daily activities. And other forms of social behavior and activity are conveyed through the conduits established by the transport system.

Moreover, a rail system is a physical network that has an embodied geometry and spatiality on the ground. Through social investments over decades or more, tracks, stations, power lines, people movers, and fuel depots have been created as physical infrastructure for the transportation network. Lines cross at junctions, creating the topology of a network of travel; and the characteristics of travel are themselves elements of the workings of the network — for example, the rate of speed feasible on various lines determines the volume of throughput of passengers through the system. And neighborhoods and hotels agglomerate around important hubs within the system.

In addition to this physical infrastructure, there is a personnel and management infrastructure associated with a rail system as well: a small army of skilled workers who maintain trains, sell tickets, schedule trains, repair tracks, and myriad other complex tasks that must be accomplished in order for the rail system to carry out its function of efficiently and promptly providing transportation. This human organization is surely a “social structure,” with some level of internal corrective mechanisms that maintain the quality of human effort, react to emergencies, and accomplish the business functions of the rail system. This structure exists in the form of training procedures, operating manuals, and processes of supervision that maintain the coordination needed among ticket agents in stations, repairmen in the field, track inspectors, engineers, and countless other railroad workers. And this structure is fairly resilient in the face of change of personnel; it is a bureaucratized structure that makes provision for the replacement of individuals in all locations within the organization over time.

So a rail network has structural characteristics at multiple levels. The physical network itself has structural characteristics (nodes, rates of travel, volume of flow of passengers and freight). This can be represented statically by the network of tracks and intersections that exist (like the stylized map of the RER above); dynamically, we can imagine a “live” map of the system representing the coordinated surging of multiple trains throughout the system, throughout the course of the day. The railroad organization has a bureaucratic structure — represented abstractly by the organizational chart of the company, but embodied in the internal processes of training, supervision, and recruitment that manage the activities of thousands of employees. And the social and technical ensemble that these constitute in turn creates an important structure within the social landscape, in that these physical and human structures determine the opportunities and constraints that exist for individuals to pursue their goals and purposes.

A general problem that confronts assertions about “social structures” is the question, what factors give the hypothesized structure a degree of permanence over time? Why should we not expect that social structures will morph quickly in response to changing uses and demands by opportunistic actors within them? A rail system provides a somewhat more definite answer to this question than is possible for most putative social structures: the physicality of the system is itself a barrier to rapid, radical structural change. The locations of the great rail terminus stations in Paris have not changed in the past century. And this is at least in part a consequence of the vast “sunk costs” that are associated with the embodied structure of track, intersection, and station that had developed over the course of the first fifty years of French railroad expansion. So the need for a passenger from Dijon to Strasbourg to convey himself/herself from the Gare de Lyon (1900) to the Gare de l’Est (1849) is exactly the same today as it was in 1900.

Logistics as a historical force

The constraint of what people can do often plays a large role in what they actually do. The study of logistics is the study of constraints. Logistics has to do with the intersection of resource, activity, space, and time. A plan is an orchestrated sequence of activities over space and time, provisioned by appropriate resources as needed. Historical actors orchestrate their actions in terms of extended plans — which means that they pay extensive and detailed attention to logistics. And historians need to do so as well.

One common species of historical question is, “Why did the agent do such-and-so?” Why did Napoleon’s invasion of Russia fail so formidably? Why did Charles Martel infeudate his central power? Why did Napoleon III fail to respond with effective military action to the Prussian invasion of France in 1870? Why did Alexander the Great avoid the direct route through the Thar Desert? Analysis of constraints is often critical to being able to answer these questions.

In each case logistics comes into the explanation at a more or less evident level. The historian’s first impulse is to ask the question of purpose and plan: what was the agent intending to accomplish? How was the observed course of action an intelligent solution? When there is no apparent rational explanation, the historian may then retreat to “miscalculation” or error. But choice always involves an assessment of constraints, and this is where logistics come in. What looks like error may actually be a rational adjustment to constraint. The point here is that logistical obstacles or difficulties are often a hidden factor on the agent’s choice — and these factors may ultimately dictate a strategy or plan that looks otherwise irrational. And historians sometimes give these constraints too little attention.

Logistics is relevant to a wide range of complex social action. Take, for example, the difficult chess match involving two NBA coaches during a forty-eight minute basketball game. Each coach makes a series of substitutions throughout the game. Some are dictated by “match-up” — getting the right defensive players on the floor given the current offensive set of the opponent. But some of the choices may appear dumb in the eyes of the duffer fan — “why did he take Iverson out now exactly when he’s on a run?” And often, I think, the answer is logistics. Each player has a finite amount of energy and spring in his legs. And each has a finite allotment of personal fouls to give. So the coach’s task, in part, is to manage substitutions in such a way as to make maximum use of his star players over the full forty-eight minutes. It doesn’t help much to have built up a 10 point lead with four minutes to go if the top scorer and rebounder are out of gas. And this is a logistics problem.

A more serious example — what about Alexander the Great in his celebrated and brilliant conquest of the world? Why did Alexander make the sometimes puzzling strategic and tactical decisions he made through his campaigns? The answer, according to Donald Engels, is logistics (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army). As Engels puts the point, “When the climate, human geography, physical geography, available methods of transport, and agricultural calendar of a given region are known, one can often determine what Alexander’s next move will be.” Engels provides careful calculations of fodder, the number of horses needed to provision and feed the Macedonian army, and the rate of speed attainable by such an army — and finds that Alexander’s choices were generally well suited to the logistical constraints and his larger strategic goals.

The study of transportation technology as a historical factor certainly falls within the general topic of “logistics as a historical cause.” (See Transportation for more extensive treatment of this topic.) Transport systems like rail networks provide specific opportunities and constraints on choice, and intelligent strategists make every effort to understand these well. So, correspondingly, the historian needs to do so as well if he/she is to explain the choices taken. (If you want to invade Burgundy from Frankfurt in 1860, don’t plan to move your army by train. And if you plan to invade Russia by rail in 1910, be prepared for the change of gauge at the frontier.)

Military historians generally pay careful attention to logistical factors as they attempt to understand military choices and strategies. But analysis of resource-time-space-activity factors probably receive less attention in other parts of historical and social research than they should.

Where does the concept of logistics fit into the concepts we use to analyze historical processes and actions? Some historians might say that it is a minor and peripheral analytical tool. But seen properly, I would say that the notion of logistics is actually a key concept that ties together the complex and extended historical actions that we want to be able to explain. It is thus a central concept within an adequate historical ontology.

This point is relevant to historical research at two levels. First, it emphasizes the importance of incorporating a careful analysis of the agent’s beliefs about the constraints he/she faces into the analysis of the eventual plans and choices. And second, at a more systemic level, it suggests that study of major logistical systems –transport, water management, urban infrastructure, the food system — may have substantial value as a source of hypotheses about large historical causes. These systems structure the opportunities and constraints that face rulers and ordinary people alike, and they have the capacity of pushing development in one direction or another in a particular historical conjuncture. They therefore function as historical causes.

Technological inevitability?

Some historians imagine that new technologies force other kinds of social changes, or even that a given technology creates a more or less inevitable process of development in society. Marx is sometimes thought to offer such a theory: “the forces of production create changes in the relations of production.” This view is referred to as technological determinism.

The logic underlying this interpretation of history goes something like this: a new technology creates a set of reasonably accessible new possibilities for achieving new forms of value: new products, more productive farming techniques, or new ways of satisfying common human needs. Once the technology exists, agents or organizations in society will recognize those new opportunities and will attempt to take advantage of them by investing in the technology and developing it more fully. Some of these attempts will fail, but others will succeed. So over time, the inherent potential of the technology will be realized; the technology will be fully exploited and utilized. And, often enough, the technology will both require and force a new set of social institutions to permit its full utilization; here again, agents will recognize opportunities for gain in the creation of social innovations, and will work towards implementing these social changes.

This view of history doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, however. There are many examples of technologies that failed to come to full development (the water mill in the ancient world and the Betamax in the contemporary world). There is nothing inevitable about the way in which a technology will develop — imposed, perhaps, by the underlying scientific realities of the technology; and there are numerous illustrations of a more complex back-and-forth between social conditions and the development of a technology. So technological determinism is not a credible historical theory.

For more credible interpretations of the relationships that exist between technology and historical change, we can consider the work of some very gifted historians.

An example of such a study of social-technological development is offered in William Cronon’s fascinating history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Cronon tracks the effects that the extension of the rail network had on the city of Chicago and the region surrounding it into Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Michigan. Cheap, reliable rail transport between Chicago and New York created large markets for grain and beef. This gave incentives to farmers and traders to organize their activities in such a way as to take advantage of the profits newly available in these markets. But Cronon points out that transportation by railroad of large volumes of grain required a reorganization of the market institutions that were used: the establishment of grain elevators along the rail lines, the establishment of a gradiing system for qualities of grain being sold by farmers to elevator operators, and the establishment of a futures market for grain and beef. And he observes that entrepreneurs recognized the gains that could be achieved by developing these institutions and carried them forward. So the technology “needed” a reorganization of the market for grain; entrepreneurs recognized an opportunity for profits in achieving this reorganization; and the necessary social innovations occurred.

This makes the business and ecological transformation of Chicago’s region sound inevitable, given the extension of the rail system into Chicago. However, contingency comes into this story from numerous angles. The build-out of the American rail network was itself a highly contingent matter; the major east-west lines could have been placed in numerous alternative routes, including a network that would have made St. Louis the major rail nexus in the center of the country. Second, the policy environment within which the American rail network developed represented another major form of contingency. As Frank Dobbin demonstrates, England, France, and the United States possessed very different “policy cultures”, and these differences created substantial differences in the way in which the basic technology of the railroad was exploited in the three national settings (Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age). And third, there are multiple social solutions that would work roughly as well as the institutions of the grain elevator and the futures market for solving the business challenges of mass transport and marketing of grain. The solutions that emerged in Chicago were therefore contingent as well.

Cronon and Dobbin illustrate several different aspects of technological causes and technological contingency in their accounts of the railroad. But for an author who takes the contingency of technology change even more seriously, see Thomas Hughes’ history of electric power in Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Hughes demonstrates that the basic scientific discoveries associated with the technology of electric power had multiple possible realizations in machines and devices, and that the social constraints that existed in different national scientific-technical-political cultures led to substantial and fundamental differences in the development of the technology. The celebrated contest between alternating and direct current as the foundation of power transmission is one such example, but there are hundreds of other examples of choice that can be uncovered in the history of this fundamental modern technology. And, most pointedly, Hughes illustrates the way in which different municipal political requirements in England, France, and the United States led to substantially different implementations of the power stations and transmission networks in the three national contexts.

These examples illustrate several fundamental points about the role of technology in historical change. A new technology creates new opportunities for power, wealth, efficiency, or productivity; so a new technology can be a powerful force for social and economic change. Governments, farmers, entrepreneurs, and corporations have a complicated set of incentives that lead them to consider developing the new technology. So new technologies certainly function as effective historical causes. The development of a technology, however, introduces deeply significant elements of contingency. The term “path-dependency” is an accurate description of the process of the development of a major technology. Third, a technology is both influenced by social factors in the society in which it is developed, and also influences the future direction of social factors in the society. Thus technology is both cause and effect of social change. And, finally, it is evident that the study of the history of technology is inevitably a study of social processes and institutions as much as it is a study of machines and inventions. Technology is a social product, shaped by the needs and powers that exist in society as much as it is shaped by scientific imagination and discovery.

%d bloggers like this: