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The telegraph and railroads become partners

In 1851, the NY & Erie was the first railroad to use a telegraph message to manage train movements.

Have you ever wondered how two trains avoid colliding when there’s a north and sound bound train (or east and west) using the same single track?

In 1830, the Baltimore and Ohio opened 14 miles of track. It relied upon horsepower until 1831. By 1833, the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company boasted 136 miles, making it the longest steam railroad in the world.

Rail traffic was young and was being “haphazardly” managed by the states. Federal government involvement had been limited to having army engineers plot route surveys.

Unsurprisingly, railroad competition with river travel was proving to be a slog. That’s not unusual for disruptive innovation.

One reason for the slog: managing two trains on one track was time consuming.

The railroads relied on a timetable and a cumbersome “time interval rule.” The timetable referenced “fixed passing locations” such as stations or sidings.

If a “ruling” train was delayed, any waiting trains had to sit idle for an hour before they could even consider proceeding! At the hour mark, a brakeman would walk forward for 20 minutes, carrying a red flag that he would use to stop the oncoming train (should he need to).

If the oncoming (“ruling”) train had not arrived in 20 minutes, the engineer would move the train forward until it met the first brakeman. Then a second brakeman would repeat the procedure. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Should the two trains meet, the one closest to a siding would need to put her in reverse and yield.

New York and Erie Railroad (NY & Erie) superintendent Charles Minot had convinced management to “build their own [telegraph] line along the railroad’s right of way” that they could use for railroad business. He set up telegraph operators on the east and west ends of the line in preparation for experiments.

Minot was aboard on a west bound train, stopped and waiting for an east bound train from a station 14 miles to the west in Goshen, NY. Reportedly an impatient man, Minot telegraphed Goshen to see if the train had left yet. It had not.

On 22 September 1851, the NY & Erie became the first railroad to employ the telegraph to coordinate train movement.

To Agent and Operator at Goshen:
Hold the train for further orders.
Charles Minot, Superintendent

He then wrote an order to the engineer:

To Conductor and Engineer, Day Express:
Run to Goshen regardless of opposing train.
Charles Minot, Superintendent

The engineer, Isaac Lewis, refused to follow the written the order. It violated the time interval system! Minot then directed Lewis in person to begin moving. Once more, Lewis refused.

Minot had been an engineer. He demoted Lewis to passenger, assumed control of the train and proceeded to Goshen with no complications.

First Train Order Transmitted by Telegraph Marker
Marker for first train order transmitted by telegraph. Mary Ellen Coghlan, 2009. Via Historial Marker Database.

NY & Erie soon adopted the telegraph train order to manage the movement of its trains. Train orders overrode the timetable.

Train orders allowed train dispatchers to set up meets at sidings, force a train to wait at a siding for a priority train to pass from behind, and to keep at least one block spacing between trains going the same direction.

Because of the increased efficiency, this method was soon adopted by railroads throughout the U.S. Until some began using the telephone.

Congress passed the first federal land grant for a railroad in 1850. Afterwards, President Millard Fillmore granted public land to Illinois for a railroad. Illinois, in turn granted the land to the Illinois Central Railroad on 10 February 1851.

The railroad boom had begun.


#scitech, #society, #communications, #transportation (245/365)
📷 Library of Congress
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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