Andrew Odlyzko: Source materials about early railroads

The British Railway Mania of the 1840s was by many measures the greatest technology mania in history. This page presents some material collected in research on a book (still in preparation) which will compare that episode to the Internet bubble and draw speculative conclusions about the future. It has the provisional title Beautiful illusions, credulous simplicity, and technology manias: From railroads to the Internet and beyond. The material presented here represents some of the more interesting items from that early history of railroads. More items are likely to be added as time goes on. Papers from this project are available at [recent papers on technology and financial manias]

  • The Glenmutchkin Railway:

    In the fall of 1845, at the height of the purely speculative phase of the Railway Mania, William Aytoun published a satirical short story, "How we got up the Glenmutchkin Railway, and how we got out of it." This piece of fiction was designed to shock investors out of their "irrational exuberance" by making them aware of the abusive practices of railway promoters. Aytoun's story was probably the best of the many satirical pieces appearing in the press around that time, especially in Punch. It was republished in its entirety by The Times, which was waging a strident campaign against the Mania. Aytoun's biographers claimed that his satire had a measurable impact in deflating the bubble. Whether that was so is debatable, but in any case this story presents a hilarious picture that is only slightly exaggerated of the abuses of the Mania. The resemblances to the recent Internet bubble promotions are striking.

    [The Glenmutchkin Railway, PDF]

  • The Railway Press Mania and Palmer's thesis:

    The Railway Mania of the 1840s was accompanied by a Railway Press Mania. General publications began to devote extensive space to railways. As just one example, The Economist added The Railway Monitor to its title and substantially enlarged its issues to provide a special section on the revolutionary new technology and the impact it was having on the economy. In addition, there was a remarkable rise of a specialized railway press, consisting at the peak of the Mania of over two dozen serials. Most were weekly, but for a short time there were even two daily ones. A handful of these railway publications predated the Mania, and only slightly more survived the peak of speculative excitement in late 1845. They form an invaluable source of information about the events of this little-studied period, but are little known. Most are rare, and many appear to be available only in the British Library.

    The late John E. C. Palmer prepared a valuable bibliographic guide to the entire 19th century British railway press. It was submitted to University College London as a thesis for his postgraduate diploma in librarianship in May 1959. Entitled Railway Periodicals of the Nineteenth Century Published in the British Isles: A Bibliographical Guide, it is by far the most comprehensive work in this field. It is presented here in scanned form by permission of Michael J. Palmer and the University of London:

    [Palmer thesis, 10 MB PDF]

    Even Palmer's thesis does not cover all of the railway literature of that period. Some additional periodicals are listed here:

    [Supplement to Palmer's thesis]

    John Palmer had planned to write a detailed study of the British railway press but did not live to complete the project. His files in this area are available in the archives of Brunel University at its Runnymede campus. There are three published works based at least in part on those archives that are of relevance to any researcher studying this subject:

  • Dionysius Lardner's survey of railways in the October 1846 issue of the Edinburgh Review:

    The October 1846 issue of the Edinburgh Review carried a survey of the railway industry by Dionysius Lardner, "Railways at home and abroad." It was the most comprehensive work on the subject available at the time.

    [Railways at home and abroad, 12 MB PDF]

  • Nash's traffic table:

    Robert Lucas Nash was a pioneer in accounting and financial analysis in the final phases of the Railway Mania. Through his compilations of traffic tables and "dissections of railway accounts" in the London Weekly Railway Share List from July 1847 to the end of October 1848, he helped spark an upheaval in railway financial reporting and analysis. The Bankers' Magazine of July 1848 (between pages 424 and 425) published the following sample of Nash's traffic table, but did not include Nash's extensive comments.

    [sample of Nash's traffic table]

    Similar traffic tables by Nash were later published in his Money Market Examiner and Railway Review between December 1848 and September 1850.

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