Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage
- Sunday, February 17, 2008
Impressive as such feats may be, the Overland Stage, the Pony Express, and the Flying Cloud were swan songs from a dying age. The Industrial Revolution was beginning, and steam engines were changing everything.
Though Isaac Newton had come up with the concept of steam locomotion way back in 1680, it didn’t move out of the theoretical into the practical until 1801. That’s when Richard Trevithick, a Cornish mine captain, built the first steam locomotive. George Stephenson took it to the next level. By 1830, when Lincoln was twenty-one, the railroad age had begun in America. From that time on, faster and faster locomotives were built, and more and more track was laid. People then traveled by horse or coach only when rail transportation wasn’t available.
For the first time in human history, time became relevant. Unless a train arrived and departed at a specific time, how could travelers know when to be at a station? So clocks became important and time zones became necessary. The modern age was dawning.
Steam changed sea and river travel, too. Until then, sailing ships had arrived in port “whenever.” The vagaries of wind and weather made more precise timetables impossible. As for river travel, it was possible to float downstream with a current but it was nearly impossible to travel the other direction against a current. Mark Twain immortalized for us the practice of mules towing boats upstream on rivers.
But now steam engines were propelling sea and river vessels. By the time Lincoln was born, steamboats were beginning to appear on lakes and rivers. A few years later, more powerful engines would make it possible for steamboats to travel against the current up rivers such as the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. On the high seas, in 1838, the British steamer the Great Western crossed the Atlantic Ocean in an unprecedented fifteen days. By 1850, the crossing time had been reduced to ten days. Timetables now became crucial for sea travel as well as rail.
Abraham Lincoln had no way of knowing that his world was changing so rapidly as he grew up in a frontier time warp. Nine years before Lincoln was born, Alessandro Volta had discovered how to create electricity, which would change the world much more dramatically than steam had done. When Lincoln was five, the circular saw was invented. By the time he was twenty, the trickle of technological change had swelled into a torrent: the electric motor, photographic negatives, acetelyne, carpet power looms, rubber, ozone, thermodynamics, the hydroelectric crane, the first form of an electric light bulb, rayon, tungsten steel, the passenger elevator, the lawnmower, electrical incandescent light, the practical storage battery, and the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the subsequent oil boom. All of these represent just a few of the inventions and discoveries that would revolutionize Lincoln’s world during his lifetime.
When Lincoln was born, America was almost totally an agricultural nation. But technology began to change there, too. The cotton gin (1793), the Deere steel plow (1833), the McCormick reaper (1834), and the grain elevator (1842) would make seismic changes in farm productivity.
Changes at Home
The home life of Mary Todd, the future Mrs. Lincoln, would change, too. During her lifetime came the development of the icebox (1803), the canning process (1810, 1819) and Mason canning jars (1858), and the sulfur match (1827). With the sulfur match it was no longer necessary to keep a fire burning day and night. Now a fire could be started whenever anyone wanted one. More inventions that transformed domestic life during this period were Howe’s sewing machine (1843), Singer’s continuous-stitch sewing machine (1851), and the cold-storage machine. And what a difference a simple little thing like a safety pin (1849) would make in a mother’s life!
For company and special occasions, party hostesses could now offer Ghirardelli’s chocolate (1851), potato chips (originally called “Saratoga chips,” 1853), strawberry shortcake (1855), and dessert out of a hand-cranked ice cream machine (1846); children could enjoy chewing gum (1848).
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