The earliest railroads looked little like their modern ancestors. Beyond the rails and wheels on cars, they had little in common. They couldn’t haul the huge loads that today’s railroads can and their mode of power was either man or animal, usually horse or ox.
The earliest ancestors of modern-day railroads date back to the Roman Empire. It was during that period that stone tracks were used with wagons.
The closest resemblance to modern railroads dates to the mid 16th century when German miners started using wooden rails to help transport wagons with flanged wheels. Like modern railroads, the rails eased the movement of heavy loads and guaranteed their movement along a certain path.
Some historians have dated the first railroads to the early 17th century, likely at an English mine, though when exactly rails were first used under carts may never be known. Even as early as 1680, Sir Isaac Newton had drawn plans for a steam-powered vehicle.
During the Industrial Revolution in the latter half of the 18th century, an iron sheet was placed on top of the traditional wooden rails, improving their strength and allowing for the movement of heavier loads. In 1734, the first iron wheel was used. While the iron wheel was no doubt stronger than the wooden one it was replacing, its introduction necessitated a second invention – the iron rail.
The much stronger and heavier iron wheels necessitated a heavier grade of rail on which to ride. While the iron rails introduced in the 18th century were of a much lower grade that rails seen today, without a doubt they were a vast improvement over the wooden rails they were replacing. Many historians cite 1738 as the first time cast iron rails were used. It is likely that cross ties were also first used at that time. As iron rails were becoming a reality in the middle 18th century, so too were stationary steam engines.
James Watt of Scotland invented the first steam engine in 1782. The world’s first railroad is often credited to England’s William Jessop, who in 1789 used flanged wheels on a coal railroad in Loughbrough, Leicestershire. Jessop, who was born in Devonport in 1745, was mass-producing his iron wheels by the 1790s.
While carts gliding along rails were seen more frequently by the turn of the 19th century, a passenger road had yet to be realized. It wouldn’t be until the second decade of the 19th century that such a road would be born.