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Published: Tuesday, 7/6/2004

History offers lesson on perseverance, transportation trends

The times they were a-changin' in the transportation world 200 years ago, a hundred years ago, and 50 years ago. And they're changing right now.

It's hard to imagine a world where ships were powered solely by sail and where horse-drawn carriages transported goods and people everywhere.

But it's also hard to grasp that visionaries saw the possibility of steamships, railroads, automobiles, jet planes, and space travel many years before they became reality.

Now, some visionaries say our future transportation systems could be based on hydrogen, not on oil or coal. Could they be right? Only time will tell, but perhaps the past offers a clue.

Two centuries ago, inventors in England and the United States worked simultaneously - but independently - on concepts that would lead to steamboats and railroad locomotives.

A century ago, Americans were just beginning to understand the mobility that the automotive era would bring, and they were just learning about the newly-invented airplane. And half a century ago, jet travel was in its infancy and space exploration seemed a possible, but distant, dream.

For well over 200 years, there has been a steady progression of transportation breakthroughs.

Even as early as 1712, English mines used crude steam-powered pumps. But as soon as James Watt patented a much-improved steam engine in 1769, inventors and entrepreneurs started looking for ways to use steam power to move cargo and people.

The steamboat got a bit of a jump on the locomotive. John Fitch showed off his steam-powered paddleboat in Philadelphia in August, 1787, and by 1791 he had a patent.

Two years later, another American, Robert Fulton, started work on his version of a steamboat, and by 1803 he was ready to launch one, in Paris. It sank, but another one built a few months later worked.

About the same time, Richard Trevithick was experimenting with steam locomotives in England. By 1804, he developed a steam-powered behemoth that pulled 10 tons of iron and 70 men along nearly 10 miles of track. The track broke under the weight, but he proved that steam could drive a locomotive.

Within less than a generation after that, steamboats were in regular use, and railroads were built in England and the United States. (Even before Toledo was officially created, in 1837, it had railroads, and it has been a rail center ever since.)

Robert Fulton is testament to the power of venture capital. Inventor Trevithick endured a series of failures and died a pauper. Inventor Fitch could never attract any important financial backing.

But Robert Fulton developed the first commercially successful steamboat in 1807, and he died a successful entrepreneur and a national hero eight years later. There's a great deal of difference between possibility and profitability.

Those steam pioneers left their mark on transportation history, as did later pioneers in gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, airplanes, nuclear ships, and spaceships.

Now we're at another crossroads. Some experts, like Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington and author of The Hydrogen Economy, believe that the next great economic and social revolution is only a decade or two away.

Many corporations are working on hydrogen technology, such as fuel cells (among them is Toledo's Dana Corp.). But which technology will prevail? And how soon will we see the results?

It's way too soon to tell. But we should be glad that the likes of Richard Trevithick, Robert Fulton, and Orville and Wilbur Wright kept trying until they proved their inventions worked.



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