Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Old days, fast times

By Claude Fischer

There’s a lot of discussion about speed these days – from the possible advantage of seconds that some users on the internet would get were broadband “net neutrality” to go away to the market-disrupting micro-mini-milli-second competition among “flash mob” stock traders to debates over the speed-up “bullet trains” might provide. It seems as if we are being dizzied by speed. Imagine, then, how Americans reacted to real speedup in the nineteenth century.

locomotive at train station
O. Winston Link

This musing is based on a few old maps that were posted on the web in 2012 and then went viral (e.g., here) in 2013. (That I am writing about them only now shows how un-speeded up I am.) Two of the maps are below. The speedup Americans experienced between 1830 and 1930 dwarfs anything since or anything that we know now or could know – short of traveling through worm-holes.


Two of the maps are here, one for 1830 and one for 1930. (The maps were drawn for Charles O. Paullin’s 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States.) The isolines show how long it would take, by fastest route, to get from New York City to various parts of the country. In the 1830, it would take about three weeks to get to Chicago. New Orleans was only 2 weeks away and Savannah only a week away thanks to water transport. In 1930, rail travel put Chicago about one day away from New York.

Today, driving time to Chicago is about a half-day. Flight time is about two hours, from take-off to landing, but door-to-door is probably triple that. It basically burns a day anyway to make the trip.

map map

Thus, between 1830 and 1930, Big Apple to Windy City travel time shrank about 95 percent, cutting 20 out of 21 days. In the 80 years since 1930, travel time shrank a bit more, cutting perhaps 18 hours. Which of those changes was most likely to be experienced as head-spinning fast, dramatic, and disruptive?

Americans of the late nineteenth century had a sense of that disruption. The railroad and streetcar, as well as the telegraph and telephone, were hailed as blessings – and also damned as terrors – of the modern world. Both readings were exaggerations, as are many claims about today’s technologies. (An earlier blog post discusses technology and the “fundamental things.”)

Berkeley geographer Allan Pred used a few of the Atlas maps 40 years ago in his major study, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information: The United States system of Cities, 1790-1840. He showed how changes in the travel time, of information’s travel in particular, altered the economic advantages of different cities – mainly to the benefit of New York City.

These days, developments of airport hubs in certain key locations around the world (Dubai? Frankfurt?) may generate economic changes of a similar kind. But they are unlikely to be as revolutionary as those that accompanied the transportation and communication developments over a century and a half ago. In a sense, these are torpid times.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.