Boorstin – Getting There First

Technology during the late 18thcentury into the 19thcentury was developed to be a technology of haste. American’s thought of technological development like a Nascar driver in a race. It was important to get there first and fast.



“ If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights




There were big types of engines that were used in steamboats on the Western river to suit western needs. The first practical type is the engine of low pressure that was developed by Watt. It was expensive and complicated, requiring many moving parts for the cylinder and condenser. The second is an engine of high pressure by Oliver Evans. This type was far simpler, compact, cheap and easy to make, operate, and maintain.

Many risks arose for people in trying to achieve the benefits of the steamboat by fast high-pressure engines. Western steamboats showed an appalling accident record, with 30% being lost. Steamboat’s life span was brief and explosions became a western phenomenon.

What about the choo-choo sound you may ask?…Early steam engines depended condensing steam to create a vacuum that pushed the piston out of the cylinder and back in. When high pressured engines arose, instead of condensing steam, builders would blow spent steam into the atmosphere.

The same passion for speed developed ideas in the creation of the railroad. Instead of taking a steamboat a week, railroads could cover the same distances in two or three days. There was also a call to settlement within the railroad with its availability to create an unnatural path. Railroads were created in the quickest way possible with little regard to safety, comfort, or duration.

Americans built for the present, while English railroad builders consciously built for the future. English locomotives were solid, stable, heavy, and well-made while American locomotives were essentially a mess. It was more important to get one place to another fast than to build something to serve our grandchildren.

Click here to read about the Stourbridge Lion, the first working steam-powered locomotive.


By Kristan Wilkins

World Count: 345

4 Replies to “Boorstin – Getting There First”

  1. I really like your connection of technological development to that of racing drivers. I thought it was very helpful in explaining why there were so many steamboat accidents. You said the same sentient was felt by railroad developers. Do you know if there were many over-pressurized boiler related accidents when railroads were first being introduced? It would be interesting to see if they had not only adopted the same passion but also learned from the mistakes of the steam boat operators.

  2. I love the Ricky Bobby quote! It’s interesting how both steamboats and locomotives ended up both using steam power but locomotives were ultimately the faster mode of transportation. I also liked that you mentioned the difference between American and British locomotives where the Americans built for the present while the British built for the future. I read the article and saw that gravity railways were used before steam locomotives were used. I never knew that those actually existed and I looked more into it. Turns out railways would just be sloped in order to transport things from one place to another. I can see how having a steam locomotive would be much more beneficial as now these railways can operate in more than one direction.

  3. I like the Ricky Bobby quote! I think that Americans and the rest of the world have kept that same mentality that we must discover it first and fast. I think that this mentality has driven many different industries. I did not know just how dangerous steamboats were! It is very interesting to think of times before safety inspections and regulations.
    Here is a website that provides more information about steamboats and regulations:

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