Title Reviewed:
A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862

Author Reviewed:
Craig Miner

Carlos Schwantes


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 108, Issue 1, pp 64-65

Article Type:
Book Review

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A Most Magnificent Machine
America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862

By Craig Miner (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. Pp. xvi, 325. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

In A Most Magnificent Machine, the late Craig Miner, of Wichita State University, provides a marvelous addition to the literature on railroads and American national development. Miner's final book is an impressive capstone in his career.

This study benefits from the latest technologies of information retrieval in its effort to explore afresh the history of a two-hundred-year-old technology. Miner's research in newspapers and journals yields a wealth of first-hand observations on early American railroads and their first four decades of technological and social evolution. Even close students of the subject will find new and interesting contemporary voices expressing thoughts on evolving railroad technology and assessing its current and future impact on the developing nation. Through its apt quotations, the book provides readers with a "you are there" experience.

Initially, as Miner makes clear, American observers regarded railroads mainly as curiosities; only gradually did a generation of tinkerers and users discover their full potential. The decades of the 1830s and 1840s were years characterized by technological experiment, false starts, and nearly as many failures as successes--but failure enabled designers and manufacturers to learn and to build upon their knowledge. While Miner does not focus on early developments in Indiana, such as the first train that steamed north out of the town of Madison, his book provides invaluable context for studying the state's growing networks of rail lines.

Existing literature on the early years of American railroads is extensive and of high quality, but no one before Miner has searched systematically through such a large body of historical literature. The challenge for scholars is becoming less a matter of finding relevant primary sources than of not being overwhelmed by the mass of easily accessible information. The American Railroad Journal, the starting point for anyone seriously interested in early railroad history, and a variety of other rail publications, including Trains and Classic Trains, magazines oriented to fans but containing solid history, have become available online and in DVD format. Finally, the Open Library offers historical documents from distinguished American and Canadian research libraries, easily downloadable and without charge.

In short, A Most Magnificent Machine makes a significant contribution to the history of American railroads. It showcases the latest research technology and effectively demonstrates its usefulness. I cannot imagine a serious student of American history during the first half of the nineteenth century being unfamiliar with A Most Magnificent Machine or with its research methodology.

CARLOS SCHWANTES is St. Louis Mercantile Library Endowed Professor in Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis Department of History.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.