The Golden Chain of Innovation: the story of the railway

The Golden Chain of Innovation: the story of the railway

Most innovations do not come about through a solitary burst of inspiration. Rather, new breakthroughs are usually links in a golden chain of innovation.  Individuals and teams connect seemingly unrelated inventions and practices, repositioning them by asking new questions that often yield unexpected answers.  Disparate data click, inspiring innovators to create new products, experiences or systems that can alter the course of history.

A recent visit to the British National Railway Museum in York, England taught me some unanticipated lessons about the golden chain of innovation throughout history. Innovators piecing together inventions in the 18th century spawned a 19th century rail transportation system, which accelerated the movement of people and goods beyond traditional borders eventually leading to the global society and economy that characterize 21st century life.

"Flanged" wheels enable a smoother ride on a horse drawn car.

“Flanged” wheels enabled passengers to enjoy a smooth ride on a horse drawn car.

Railways did exist in Europe in the 18th century. The Middleton Railway in Yorkshire, established in 1758, claims to be the oldest in the world. However, the Middleton Railway, like all railways at the time, were stagecoaches on wooden rails pulled by horses.

Englishman William Jessop designed the first wagons with “flanged” wheels.  The flange was a groove that allowed wheels to better grip the rail, which could be either wood or iron. This design innovation still depended on horsepower to move the carriages.

Watt's steam engine was designed to power cotton looms.

Watt’s steam engine was designed to pump water our of coal mines.

The invention of the steam engine, credited to James Watt in 1774, would prove to be a crucial improvement to rail transportation even though coal mine pumping efficiency was the intended outcome of his invention.

Watt worked at the University of Glasgow in Scotland as an instrument maker.  He was not a professor, but rather an amateur engineer.  Watt presented his prototype to James Boulton, a local businessman who would become his partner. Together the men perfected the prototype, brought it to market and quickly scaled production.

Stephenson's "Rocket" train on display at the National Railway Museum in York.

Stephenson’s “Rocket” train on display at the National Railway Museum in York.

The Boulton-Watt steam engine in turn inspired Richard Trevithick to reconsider the normal practice of using horses to pull carriages on rails. He invented a smaller, high-pressure steam engine. Trevithick’s 1804 invention made it possible to place a steam engine into a rail carriage.

But it was not until 1829 that George Stephenson, a coal miner and self-taught engineer, built the “Rocket.”  This latest iteration of the steam engine placed in a railway carriage was able to carry 30 passengers between Liverpool and Manchester at the astounding speed of 30 miles per hour!

Stephenson’s engine was rapidly improved upon by numerous inventors in England, continental Europe and the United States.  The pairing of the steam engine with the railway revolutionized transportation, moving people, raw materials and finished goods without human or animal power.

The increasing use of the railway sparked a building spree that connected villages, towns and cities. Technological changes brought about by rail transportation spilled into other ares. New tunnels and bridges were built to support rail travel.  Grand new train stations , built in the center of major cities, were supported by a web of new streets, short-distance transport vehicles, hotels, shops, and restaurants.

Railway stations were monuments to technological progress

Railway stations were monuments to technological progress.

Increasing demand for iron and later steel to build rails, engines and carriages created entirely new industries and employment. Workers left the countryside for ports and major cities.  Timely transport required schedules based on standardized time zones.  Numerous passengers traveling long distances required reading materials, which gave birth to the mass market paperback book publishing industry.

Stories about innovation reveal common patterns.

1. Innovation results from small changes. The original steam engine was intended for existing coal and textile industries.  Its adaptation to transportation transformed local agrarian relationships to national and global industrial economies.

2. Innovation is driven by doers. Real innovators are actually tinkerers. Like James Watt, they are not necessarily renowned experts but people who like to experiment and build.

3. Expertise is important but not only from one “silo.” To be sure, the importance of expertise cannot be underestimated.  However, ideas from people with different perspectives are often the best catalysts for innovation. George Stephenson worked in a coal mine and taught himself the engineering skills necessary invent the Rocket.

Why write about the development of British railways that began more than two centuries ago?  Because the invention and scaling of railways illustrate how the adaptation and improvement of the steam engine fused a golden chain of innovations that affected nearly every aspect of human life and altered the course of history.



Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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