Circa 2000 B.C., horses were domesticated and used for transportation. A horse can travel about five miles per hour over moderate distances. For the next 3,800 years, technological innovation for traveling on land was almost nonexistent. In 1800, the horse still was the prime method of transportation on land—and still at about five miles per hour. So 3,800 years of stagnation!

Everything started to change in 1769 when James Watt designed an efficient steam engine. Originally, steam engines were used to power pumps and industrial machinery, but soon inventors saw the potential to use the engines to power boats. While a number of steamboats were built by entrepreneurs as early as 1787, Robert Fulton became known as the father of steam navigation when, on August 7, 1807, his Clermont completed the 150-mile trip from New York to Albany in 32 hours—still an average speed of five miles an hour.

If steam engines could be used to power boats, why couldn’t they be used to power wagons that ride on tracks? They could. In 1814, a self-educated British laborer named George Stephenson designed the world’s first steam locomotive to operate on tracks. The purpose of the locomotive was to haul coal from the mouth of a mine. Eleven years later, the first common carrier railroad, the Stockton & Darlington Railroad Company, was formed. Stephenson designed a locomotive for the Stockton & Darlington that could pull 6 coal cars and 21 small passenger cars over nine miles ...

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