It happened today - July 25, 2015

The McCammon Safety Bicycle On July 25, 1832, the first recorded railroad accident in U.S. history, and the first railroad fatality, happened near Quincy, Massachusetts. Four people riding on a vacant car on the Granite Railway to see how effectively a train could carry loads of stone were hurled off a cliff when a cable snapped. It sure didn’t take long. And I wonder what environmentalist defenders of the “Precautionary Principle” would say.

It’s always odd to see familiar technology in its infancy. For instance, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad started in 1828 powering its cars with, of course, horses. I mean what else would you use? But after a steam engine, of all things, nearly outran a horse in 1930, they started using this new-fangled stuff.

Some people found it troublesome. New York governor Martin Van Buren wrote to President Andrew Jackson in 1829 that “The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads.’... As you may well know, railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles an hour by engines, which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.” And as the 1832 accident indicated, “breakneck” is not just a colourful adjective.

Of course, it existed before there were trains. I very much doubt the horse would have passed a Precautionary Principle test thousands of years ago. I mean those things can buck, they can kick, and where will we put the dung?

No really. The last was a very serious ecological problem by the turn of the 20th century especially in big cities, mercifully solved by private industry through the now-despised car. Oh, and by the way, the first automobile fatality in the Americas occurred quickly as well, when 69-year-old Henry Hale Bliss was crushed by an electric taxi. I doubt electric cars would be allowed today under the sort of rules applied to oil pipelines.

I don’t even think the bicycle would make it. When cheap steel made bicycles widely available in the 1890s, Carl Honoré notes in his splendid book In Praise of Slow, there was concern that riding them at high speed on a windy day might produce the permanent disfiguring condition “bicycle face”. I mean hey, you never know. (The first recorded bicycle accident came in 1842 when someone ran over a kid; I haven’t been able to determine when the first bicycle fatality came but evidently the inventor of the menacing-sounding steam-powered bicycle, Sylvester H. Roper, died riding one, though possibly because a heart attack caused him to crash.)

As it turns out, we did get trains, and now they’re the subject of some nostalgia as well as futuristic dreams of high speed rail. We don’t pull them with horses any more and we’re not very afraid of them. But nuclear reactors and oil pipelines, weeellll….