To illustrate the impact of technological and infrastructure changes on daily life, imagine that the year is 1789 and you are living in Philadelphia. George Washington has just been elected president of the United States. You have always been one of George’s biggest fans. He just dropped by your house and appointed you secretary of state. How long will it be before the rest of the country knows of your appointment from the newspapers?
Here is the average number of days you should expect to lapse before people in other cities hear of your good news:
Baltimore, MD = 10 Days
Boston, MA =15 Days
Charleston, SC = 22 Days
New York, NY = 5 Days
Harrisburg, PA =15 Days
Lexington, KY = 57 Days
Pittsburgh, PA = 31 Days
Quebec City = 100 Days
Portland, ME = 20 Days (1)
Ten years later in 1800, you are living in the New York and decide to go on the lecture circuit telling about your experience as the first secretary of state. Thirty years after that, in 1830, a biographer will retrace your steps, traveling to the same places you visited. How long should you expect your commute to be to any given city in 1800 versus how long your biographer’s commute will be in 1830 to the same cities?
Boston, MA: 4 Days vs 2 Days
Charleston, SC: 2 Weeks vs 5 Days
Detroit, MI: 4 Weeks vs 1 Week
Louisville, KY: 4 Weeks vs 1 Week
New Orleans, LA: 4 Weeks vs 2 Weeks
Philadelphia, PA: 1 Day vs 1 Day
Pittsburgh, PA: 2 Weeks vs 4 Days
St. Louis, MO: 5 Weeks vs 2 Weeks (2)
Clearly improvements were happening in transportation in the early nineteenth century. Travel times declined considerably and average travel fares dropped by 50-80%. Still, as late as the 1840s, transportation was very costly. The average non-farm laborer’s wage was about $1.00 a day and a free agricultural laborer’s wage was about $10.00 a month. Travel in the north would cost about 2.0-4.5 cents a mile and about 5.5-6.0 cents a mile in the south (where wages were about 50-75% of northern wages.) Furthermore, many of these trips required food and lodging expenses along the way. A round trip from Baltimore to New York could easily consume one month’s wages for a northern agricultural worker and two months or more for a similar person traveling similar distances in the south. (3)
Today we travel distances in minutes that took travelers days to cover less than 200 years ago for pocket change. More than once I have risen in the morning in Kansas City, flown to Chicago 500 miles away, attended a meeting, flown back home, and gone to bed at my home in the same day. The cost was less than one day’s wages. What happened in the last 150-200 years? The four factors of prosperity!
Many historians differ about which technological events had the most significant impact. The first steam powered pumps emerged in England in 1705 to pump water out mines. This technology was tinkered with over the next several decades. The watershed moment appears to be James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1765. It took another thirty years of tinkering before the technology could be perfected and engines could be put to practical use.
What no historian disputes is that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, production was no longer limited to the power provided by man and beast for the first time in human history. But the mass production of such machines was anything but cheap. The raw materials were expensive and they had to be finely crafted by expensive skilled laborers. The potential for exponential growth in manufacturing was staggering but the cost to the manufacturers to make engines and the cost to the end users to purchase them was equally staggering. These were the dynamics that drove governments to create laws that facilitated the aggregating of capital into limited liability corporations.
However, increased production was rather pointless if you couldn’t transport your products in large quantities. I noted that the English had developed horse drawn rail systems for transporting coal to various distribution centers. It wasn’t long before innovative entrepreneurs began exploring how to use the new technology to move these carts. This led to the birth of the steam powered locomotive.
The United States faced an enormous transportation problem. I have illustrated the travel issues above. There was a desire to expand territory but the land area was already enormous at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Louisiana Purchase came in 1803 and doubled the size of the nation. How could a government effectively govern such a diverse and disconnected expansive area?
Some turned to the ideas of building canals. The Erie Canal which took nearly a quarter century to build was completed in 1825 across the state of New York. It was far more expensive to build than the government was willing to risk so a quasi-corporation was established to finance its construction. Some inventors took steam technology and applied to boats that could navigate the highly developed network of waterways. Sea going vessels were modified for international travel. The steam locomotives began to appear in England and in the United States during the 1820s-1830s. Meanwhile, English engineer John Loudon McAdam perfected a road building process called macadamization that revolutionized the quality and durability of road construction.
The construction and maintenance of all these canals, ships, railroads and roads required huge sums of capital. Not surprisingly it was in the 1830s that the United States saw the emergence of limited liability companies. The railroads in particular would become the most significant corporations of the nineteenth century.
As amazing as the transport revolution was, even more transforming was the invention of the telegraph. It came into use in England and the United States in the 1840s. For the first time in human history information could travel faster than a man on horseback. It was not just faster but virtually instantaneous. One author describes the telegraph as the Victorian Internet.(4) Capital markets thrive on having a broad range of buyers and sellers with as complete a view of markets as possible. The telegraph ballooned the number players participating in markets on a real time basis. Using the analogy I started with above, the travel of critical information quickly went from taking weeks and days to minutes and seconds.
We talk about our era as being a time of rapid transformation but I am inclined to agree with William J. Bernstein in his conclusion that the most rapid period of change in human history is not our current era. It was the time between about 1825-1875.(5) Most of what we've seen since is a refinement and elaboration of the changes experienced during those times. The internal combustion engine was invented during the nineteenth century. It further expanded our ability to travel by automobile and travel long distances at radically reduced costs. The technology was further elaborated to create air and space travel in the twentieth century. Electricity which had been critical for telegraphs (which morphed into telephones) went on to create power for almost everything we touch. Radio waves were discovered and turned into radio and television signals in the twentieth century. Microchips were invented to handle electronic signals. They were made into computers that morphed with telephones and wave technology to create our present digital and wireless communication networks including the internet and cell phones. Then there is the controversial development of atomic energy. The list goes on.
Each succeeding step has expanded and integrated ever broadening markets. Science and technological knowledge has mushroomed and is more widely shared than ever before. (6) All of these have led to broadening prosperity throughout the planet. As Bernstein notes, when a significant number of people in poverty begin to experience prosperity they begin to take a greater interest in the rule of law and property rights to solidify and perpetuate that prosperity. (7)
This is not to say this transition of the past 200 years has been absent of its share of abuse or harmful effects. Dissecting each and every influence of these technological changes is beyond our scope here. The point that I hope is clear is how the emergence of property rights, scientific rationalism and capital markets interacted in a way that gave birth to modern technology and infrastructure. It was the rise of this technology and infrastructure that put pressures on the other three that has led to their transformation and elaboration. The four combined have generated the prosperity we know today.
(1) Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States System of Cities, 1790-1840 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973) 37.
(2) Pred, 176-177.
(3) Pred, 175-185.
(4) Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet (Berkley, CA: Berkley Trade, 1999)
(5) William J. Bernstein, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 187-188.
(6) An astronomy professor friend tells me we have learned more about the universe in the past ten years than in all of human history combined.
(7) Bernstein, Chapter 10.