What Can Be More Palpably Absurd Than the Prospect Held Out of Locomotives Traveling Twice as Fast as Stagecoaches?

The Quarterly Review? Samuel Shaen? Wyndham Harding? Samuel Smiles? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While reading a humorous book containing a collection of terribly inaccurate predictions I encountered the following:

What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?

The book asserted that this claim was made in 1825, but I have not been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This statement was derived from a long passage in an 1825 article about “Canals and Rail-Roads” in “The Quarterly Review” of London. The unnamed author of the article was very skeptical about the claims being made for passenger travel via locomotives. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The gross exaggerations of the powers of the locomotive steam-engine, or, to speak in plain English, the steam-carriage, may delude for a time, but must end in the mortification of those concerned. What, for instance, can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous, than the following paragraph in one of the published proposals of what we should call a hopeless project?

The above passage introduced an excerpt from a report that proposed the construction of a railway between London and Woolwich. The report included a remark about the speed of locomotives on the proposed route:

The number of short coaches running upon this line is 150 per diem. Admitting on the average that these coaches are only half filled, their receipts for passengers alone will be 26,000 a year. As locomotive machines, moving with twice the velocity, and with greater safety, must in a very great degree supersede the coaches, the company will probably obtain from passengers alone, independently of the baggage, an income of £20,000 . . .

The statement under analysis was created via the compression of the text above. Specifically, the two sections shown in boldface were condensed and highlighted. The construction occurred through a multistep process suggested by the citations given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The 1825 article in “The Quarterly Review” contained other passages that appear misguided to the modern reader. The author compared the dangers of traveling in a locomotive at twenty miles an hour to the perils of traveling in a rocket: 2

In a similar strain we find a countryman of Mr. Telford writing thus: ‘We shall be carried at the rate of four hundred miles a day, with all the ease we now enjoy in a steam-boat, but without the annoyance of sea-sickness, or the danger of being burned or drowned.’ It is certainly some consolation to those who are to be whirled at the rate of eighteen or twenty miles an hour, by means of a high pressure engine, to be told that they are in no danger of being seasick while on shore; that they are not to be scalded to death nor drowned by the bursting of the boiler; and that they need not mind being shot by the scattered fragments, or dashed in pieces by the flying off, or the breaking of a wheel. But with all these assurances, we should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s ricochet rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine, going at such a rate . . .

The 1847 book “A Review of Railways and Railway Legislation at Home and Abroad ” by Samuel Shaen referred back to the 1825 article. Shaen condensed the passage concerning locomotive speed. In the following excerpt QI changed the originally italicized text into boldface text: 3

“As to those persons who speculate on making Railways generally throughout the Kingdom, and superseding all the canals, all the waggons, mails, and stage coaches, post chaises, and in short every other mode of conveyance by land and by water, we deem them and their visionary schemes unworthy of notice. What for instance can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the following paragraph.” Here follows an account of the expected cost and traffic of a Woolwich line, containing “as locomotive machines moving with twice the velocity, and with greater safety,” (the italics are not mine) “must in a great degree supersede the coaches, the Company will probably obtain,” &c.

In 1848 the “Journal of the Statistical Society of London” published an article about the railway system by Wyndham Harding which referred to the 1825 article: 4

“What, for instance, can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the following paragraph,” in which a prospect is held out of locomotive travelling twice as fast as stage-coaches? “We should as soon,” adds the reviewer, “expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s ricochet rockets as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate.”

The 1857 biography “The Life of George Stevenson: Railway Engineer” by Samuel Smiles contained a version of the condensed statement which was incorrectly presented as a direct quotation: 5

Adverting to a project for forming a railway to Woolwich, by which passengers were to be drawn by locomotive engines, moving with twice the velocity and with greater safety than ordinary coaches, the reviewer proceeded : — “What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous than the prospect held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stage coaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s ricochet rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate.”

In 1983 the book “303 of the World’s Worst Predictions” by Wayne Coffey included a version of the condensed statement: 6

“What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?”
The Quarterly Review (1825)

In conclusion, the quotation under analysis does not appear in an issue of “The Quarterly Review” in 1825. However, there is a lengthy passage that contains a matching idea. During subsequent decades the passage was condensed to produce the statement circulating in modern times.

(Great thanks to D. whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Image Notes: Illustration of a locomotive from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. The image has been resized and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1825, The Quarterly Review, Volume 31, Number 62, Article V: Canals and Rail-Roads, Start Page 349, Quote Page 361, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1825, The Quarterly Review, Volume 31, Number 62, Article V: Canals and Rail-Roads, Start Page 349, Quote Page 362, John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1847, A Review of Railways and Railway Legislation at Home and Abroad by Samuel Shaen, Chapter: Claims of English Railway Companies, Quote Page 27, William Pickering, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1848 November, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, Volume 11, Facts bearing on the Progress of the Railway System by Wyndham Harding (Read before the Statistical Section of the British Association at Swansea, 14th August, 1848), Start Page 322, Quote Page 322, John William Parker, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1857, The Life of George Stevenson: Railway Engineer by Samuel Smiles, Second Edition, Chapter XIX, Quote Page 230, John Murray, London. (HathiTrust full View) link
  6. 1983, 303 of the World’s Worst Predictions by Wayne Coffey, Chapter 2: Are We There Yet? – Transportation, Quote Page 21, Tribeca Communications Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)