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December 2, 2007

"The Globe's Modern Commerce"

The importance of the steamboat for economic development in America:

Steaming into the future, by Kirkpatrick Sale, Commentary, LA Times: Monday, Aug. 17, 1807, was another hot summer day in New York City, and most of the women of fashion on the Hudson River pier, arms linked to laced and ruffled gentlemen, had their pastel parasols up against the sun. It was unusual for such a crowd to gather midday on a Monday.... But a good deal of excitement had been stirred up in the city by the prospect of Robert Fulton's strange and improbable steamboat making its maiden voyage to Albany.

This was not the first steamboat... But Fulton's was superior in design and engineering. If he made the voyage without mishap that day, it would prove that his craft could go faster than any boat on the river, in any kind of weather, and thus lead to the first commercially viable steamboat operation in the world.

Interest was particularly high because ... it was widely held that the whole outlandish contraption was likely to explode. ... In his later account, Fulton noted that "in the moments before the word was to be given for the boat to move," the people on deck showed "anxiety mixed with fear" and were "silent, sad and weary." Indeed, "I read in their looks nothing but disaster, and almost repented of my efforts."

But he had not spent much of the previous five years learning about steam propulsion, and the previous six months and nearly $10,000 of his own money (plus an equal amount from Livingston) actually building the boat, just to give in to a few skeptics. At 1 p.m., he gave the signal for the engine to be powered and the boat to be cast off.

The boat glided a few yards into the Hudson, then stopped. ... He started examining the machinery and wheels, and in less than half an hour, "the boat was again put in motion" and "continued to move on."... [T]here it was, moving at a steady 4 miles an hour northward, and Fulton proudly noted, "I overtook many sloops and schooners . . . and parted with them as if they had been at anchor."

The voyage to Albany, broken by a stopover at Livingston's Clermont estate halfway up the Hudson, took two days and was, by Fulton's laconic account, "150 miles in 32 hours, equal near 5 miles an hour." And the return trip was equally swift and successful: "time 30 hours, space run through 150 miles, equal 5 miles an hour." A mundane way to describe what Fulton himself knew was a momentous achievement.

The creation of the age of steam meant many things to America. At the end of the century, historian Henry Adams, in assessing Fulton's feat that day, marked it "as the beginning of a new era in America -- a date which separated the colonial from the independent stage of growth," for the U.S. was alone in possessing such a vessel and would be for decades. He added that "the problem of steam navigation, so far as it applied to rivers and harbors, was settled, and for the first time America could consider herself mistress of her vast resources."

North America, unlike Europe, was a huge continent of long rivers, and the conquest of them in a land of few roads and many mountains meant that the Ohio and Mississippi valleys could be settled and become the basis of prosperous economies -- agriculture and industry in the North, plantations and slavery in the South. In the 20 years after the first steamboat on the Mississippi, more people were drawn to middle America -- 2.4 million -- than the original colonies had attracted in 200 years.

A hundred years on, Mark Twain could take the full measure of Fulton's achievement: "He made the vacant oceans and the idle rivers useful. He found these properties a liability; he left them an asset.

"By his genius Robert Fulton laid the foundation of the greatness of New York, and with his brother immortals, Watt and Stephenson, he created the stupendous prodigy, the globe's modern commerce, and with it, in vast measure, the really stupendous moral and material civilization which has resulted from it." ...

I would add that before the railroads,  canals also played an important role (important enough that the incremental value of railroads over an extended canal system may not be very large - see Fogel's work):

In the United States, canal building began slowly; only 100 miles of canals had been built at the beginning of the 19th century; but before the end of the century more than 4,000 miles were open to navigation. With wagon haulage difficult, slow, and costly for bulk commodities, water transport was the key to the opening up of the interior, but the way was barred by the Allegheny Mountains. To overcome this obstacle, it was necessary to go north by sea via the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes or south to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi. A third possibility was the linking of the Great Lakes with the Hudson via the Mohawk Valley. The Erie Canal, 363 miles long with 82 locks from Albany on the Hudson to Buffalo on Lake Erie, was built by the state of New York from 1817 to 1825. Highly successful from the start, it opened up the Midwestern prairies, the produce of which could flow eastward to New York, with manufactured goods making the return journey westward, giving New York predominance over other Atlantic seaboard ports. ...

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 had given the United States control of the Mississippi River, and it became the main waterway for the movement of Midwestern produce via New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Developments included the Illinois-Michigan Canal, connecting the two great water systems of the continent, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Entering Lake Michigan at Chicago, then a mere village, the canal triggered the city's explosive growth. Several canals were constructed subsequently to link up with the Erie and Welland canals and the St. Lawrence, and a comprehensive network of inland waterways was established.

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