King's College London
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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Planning the network

Scenic view of a river and bridge with a train crossing. A man and child fish with nets in the foreground.View of the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead on the line of the Great Western Railway.The view of the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead juxtaposes a bucolic foreground scene with the backdrop of the approaching railway locomotive. The railway age is evidently steaming into view and with this transport revolution came both a huge expansion in the number of railway lines connecting towns and cities and significant cultural changes to the lives of British citizens.

The opening plate of this 1838 work, published near the beginning of the railway age, is the only one to represent these changes with a romantic eye - the rest of the plates are technical designs of railway structures and engines, by various engineers of the time. These include a swing bridge in the London docks, a timber pier at Grangemouth harbour and a locomotive engine for ‘assisting the trains up the inclined plane on the London and Croydon railway’.

Many individual railway companies operated regional lines through the early days of the railways and this is reflected in the references to companies such as the Great Western Railway, the Manchester and Birmingham Railway and the Glasgow, Greenock and Paisley Railway.

Between 1830 and 1901, the mileage of track in Britain developed by these various companies grew from 100 to 19,000 miles, a massive expansion which facilitated a transportation network for the goods and services produced by a rapidly industrialising nation. In cultural terms, the railways’ influence was also profoundly significant, allowing people to travel more easily beyond the places of their birth, for work or leisure, and literally expanding their horizons.

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