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The Origin of the Train: Where Did the Initial Idea Come From?

The Origin of the Train: Where Did the Initial Idea Come From?
photo: Queensland State Archives / Flickr/The first train
17 / 11 / 2023

The challenge of transporting people and goods quickly and efficiently has puzzled many inventors. Determining who laid the foundation for the idea of train transport is even more intriguing.

The earliest signs of a train-like system date back to the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. The Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians constructed roads deliberately cut into rock. These roads simplified the transportation of wagons, pulled by horses or bulls, by eliminating the need to steer and control their trajectory. Various civilizations developed wagon systems connecting their capitals with trading posts or sacred sites. Examples include the routes from Sparta to Aiklia, Athens to Eleusis, and Elis to Olympia. Around 600 BC, the Greeks built the Diolkos railway in ancient Corinth, considered by many as the first railway in history.

Monash Public Library Service / Flickr

With Greece's fall, wagons disappeared from Europe, only re-emerging in the 16th century as trade flourished. Horse-drawn wagons were faster and safer on dirt roads, but inventors and industrialists aspired for more. They envisioned automating goods transportation. This revolution began at the end of the 17th century with Thomas Savery’s introduction of the first stationary steam engine. Despite its simplicity and low power, it took 60 years to adapt steam engines for powering trains. This breakthrough occurred in 1763 when James Watt improved upon Savery’s designs by introducing a crankshaft that converted steam power into circular motion, paving the way for modern steam engines.