Industrialism as Progress


On the 15th of September 1830, the world’s first passenger railway carried its very first passengers from Liverpool to Manchester—among them such dignitaries as the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel. A correspondent for the Times called the inaugural procession “most delightful,” and was especially impressed by the “crowds which have lined almost every inch of our road” along with the “flags and banners, and booths and scaffoldings, and gorgeous tents, which have enlivened even the dullest parts of our journey” (“Dreadful” 3). There was much to celebrate, and the correspondent continued to effuse for a few sentences before bowing to the demands of tragedy: “I am obliged …to defer the description as comparatively uninteresting owing to the fatal accident (as I apprehend) that has befallen Mr. Huskisson.” Along the way, William Huskisson, MP for Liverpool and longtime champion of the railway, was crushed to death by an engine called the Rocket. Strolling the tracks during what was supposed to be a brief stop, Huskisson found himself in the path of an oncoming train, and owing to a combination of panic and hesitation, he was unable to save himself:”…the wheel went over his left thigh, squeezing it almost to a jelly, broke the leg, it is said, in two places, laid the muscles bare from the ankle, nearly to the hip, and tore out a large piece of flesh, as it left him.” Summing up the decidedly ambivalent experiences of the afternoon, the Times struck a note of mechanical fatalism: “I need scarcely repeat what has been already said by others in this account, that the dreadful accident which most probably will deprive the country of so eminent a statesman, was owing to no fault of the machinery.”

I am not the first to offer these events as a parable of industrialism. John Sterling did, in his 1842 review of Alfred Tennyson’s Poems, and George Eliot did as well, on more than one occasion. Even at this late juncture, though, I want to argue that Huskisson’s death still has something to tell us about the experience of industrialism, provided we shift our perspective a bit. What is required is a less lugubrious look, a willingness to set the gains of the day beside the losses, just as contemporaries did. This first railway journey was not, after all, unremmitingly tragic; it was widely, if delicately, celebrated. Yes, a great public figure had died, but strictly speaking, the Times correspondent was surely right: his death was not in any obvious sense the “fault of the machinery.” There was no mechanical failure, and no flaw in the engineering or the materials. Huskisson died because the railway engine operated precisely as planned, traveling at a speed so rapid that it baffled human comprehension and outpaced one man’s motor-response. And that itself was still a technological triumph, regardless of the human cost.

The results of the day crystallize, with a clarity rare for historical events, one of the most fundamental experiences of early industrialism: the entanglement of progress with pain. It is not a matter of taking sides, of fixing a moral stance and choosing between “The Death of William Huskisson” and “The Triumph of the Railway” as the proper headline for a newspaper article. Those things were thought to be inextricable: tragedy and triumph, suffering and innovation. It was understood that industrialism would often be destructive, and sometimes even fatal. But contemporaries nonetheless felt—in fact, felt more strongly—that it was making progress possible. It was enhancing human power and increasing human welfare in ways that history had never before allowed. Stray victims, like Huskisson, were something more than regrettable side-effects; they were integral to human improvement, the unfortunate but still worthwhile price society had to pay for greater happiness.

Besides, if you tried to interfere, you might get run over.