Monthly Archives: January 2015

On This Day in 1855…

The Panama Railway dispatched its first locomotive across the Isthmus of Panama


Last year, we celebrated the 100th year anniversary of one of the world’s greatest civil engineering achievements – the construction of the Panama Canal. But it was today, 160 years ago, that the Panama railroad was completed and saw the first train travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean connecting the east to west.

The Panama Railroad was of vital importance for the construction of the Panama Canal, constructed 50 years later. But it was the growing pressures of western immigration that triggered the railway’s dawning.

After the United States claimed California as a result of the Mexican War in 1846, only a trickle of American settlers had made the arduous trek from the east to the western coast. After many shelved ideas and propositions, the United States once again turned its attention to securing a safe and quick link between the Atlantic and the Pacific with the prospective movement of settlers to the west.

Panama was the narrowest crossing between the two oceans and offered the obvious and quickest connection from east to west. In 1847 the Panama Railroad Company was set up to achieve just that, and by 1850 work had begun to lay down the tracks.

The discovery of gold in California one year after the railroad plans were made only heightened the importance of its completion to many prospectors wanting to head west in search for their fortune.

The California Gold Rush of the late 1840s saw thousands of people catch “gold fever” and embark on the adventurous journey to the wild west. By the end of 1848 thousands of excited people from the eastern coast of America to as far as Chile planned big trips to California.

Travellers from the east coast had three travel choices: Travel by sea around the tip of South America, take the shortcut through Nicaragua near Panama, or travel by land.

Travelling by sea around South America’s southern tip of Cape Horn was a very popular route in the early days of the Gold Rush with hundreds of ships embarking on the 13,000 mile voyage. But the trip could last up to eight months and ships were jammed with passengers causing discomfort, scurvy and frustration.

Most people opted to travel by land, but this had to be a carefully planned journey at the right time of year if travellers and their cattle were going to reach the grassy plains before others reached the best grazing lands. Many didn’t make the well marked Oregon Trail without catching cholera from the muddy river waters. Even if they survived disease there was still the punishing Forty Mile Desert to endure and many men, horses and cattle became exhausted and perished before completing their pilgrimage.

A dense jungle, humming with swarms of malarial mosquitoes, the temptingly narrow stretch of Panama awaited any brave traveller heading for the West Coast in search of gold. But many wanted to avoid the tropical diseases of Panama, and so to shortcut the lengthy voyage around Cape Horn, disembarked on the east coast of Nicaragua crossing the Lake Nicaragua to then complete the final leg of the journey in large steamers and carriages to San Francisco.

When the Panama Railroad was finally completed in early 1855, it was a far-reaching transport success that changed the course of history and kick-started a migration of tens of thousands of emigrants to the new gold rich western lands. It was by far the quickest and most comfortable means to get to California and as a result Panama’s economy thrived.

Read detailed accounts of the Panama Railroad in The Engineer journals below:

The Panama Railroad – The Engineer 1902/10/10

The Panama Railroad by Percy F. Martin

*No I – The Engineer 1912/06/14
*No II – The Engineer 1912/06/21

High-Wheelers of the 1870s: The Penny-Farthing Era

James Starley’s Giant Penny Farthing

The penny-farthing is a well-known cliché image of the Victorian age. A bizarre and short-lived velocipede that despite its short window in history, made a great impact in the world of cycling today. These ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ were the first bicycles with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner.

Penny- farthings were contraptions born from the designs of the famous French ‘boneshaker’ – which as the name suggests, was a highly uncomfortable ride.

Envisage hurtling along, poised atop a frame designed of stiff wrought-iron with only iron tires on wooden wheels to provide suspension, and you probably wouldn’t be far off  imagining a French ‘boneshaker’ ride. This was the first type of true bicycle with pedals and they were hailed with the name ‘velocipedes’ ( human-powered land vehicles with one or more wheels), by their manufacturers.

Pierre Lallemant
Pierre Lallemant’s ‘Boneshaker’.

During the early 1870s, English inventor James Starley started manufacturing bicycles based on the ‘boneshaker’ design. He increased the front wheel size to enable higher speeds, and so created the famous penny-farthing.

We’ve all heard of the penny-farthing and many of us have seen pictures of them – the bravest of us can even ride them. But imagine riding one at high-speed along the roughest roads of the late 1800s. Bear in mind, you’ve no means to really brake, there’s every chance you’ll fall off and you’re perched at almost two metres from the ground. They were very dangerous and many succumbed to falling over the handlebars or performing a ‘header’. Despite their obvious risks however,  high-wheelers appealed to the young and wealthy Victorian men who craved the excitement and thrill of such speedy and technically-advanced machines.


The term penny-farthing originated from the comparison of the smaller and larger wheels to farthing and penny coins, referenced a lot in the media as a derogatory word during the 1890s  when the contraptions were almost outdated. Many enthusiasts today may ask you to call them ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ – a name they were given during the late 1890s to differentiate from the new and up-coming ‘safety bicycles.’

The launch of the Rover Safety Bicycle saw to a halt in the manufacture of the high-wheeled ordinary bicycles by 1893. The ‘Rover’ was lower, the rider sat further behind from the front wheel and so was less prone to fall forward – a common problem with the penny-farthing.  With the development of the Rover’s upgraded chain drivers, higher speeds could be obtained without the large wheel and the high-wheeled bicycle was outdated. From 1895 they were simply known as an ‘ordinary’ or the now-familiar coinage-based term of disparagement – penny-farthing.

Today they stand as a much loved symbol of  Victorian leisure and bridge the early bicycle design with our light-weight road racers today – no doubt with a claim to have helped inspire the birth of cycling as a sport as well.

Read more about the history of the cycle. Or look up cycle manufacturers in our cycle category.

A Review of 2014

2014 was a great year for the project and some of our frequent visitors will have noticed or read about key progressions within Grace’s Guide as they happened last year.

Here’s a reminder of some of our key events from 2014:

January – This time last year, (and after nearly seven years of hard work), we reached charity statusfor the advancement of the education of the public in the subject of the industrial and engineering history of the UK.

April – Then we hit over 100,000 pages in April, achieving a great milestone for the project and the content being made available to freely read and use everyday.

June – By early summer we had completed photographing the journals of The Engineer to provide perhaps the only complete digital version of The Engineer from 1856– 1960 available today.

October – We re-launched this blog last autumn to reach out to our readers and connect you to some of our greatest pages.

2015 is set to be another good year, so please get involved if you want to be a part of our volunteer team, contact us if you can add to any of our history pages, or simply keep supporting and returning to the site to find more exciting pieces of history and hidden gems about our industrial past.