Today’s Economic History: 1870 as the Inflection Point in Trade and Transport: ... The old rule-of-thumb before the railroad was that you simply could not transport agricultural goods more than 100 miles by land. Over that distance the horses or the oxen would have eaten as much as they could have pulled. Either find a navigable watercourse—and it had better be much closer than 100 miles—or find yourself stuck in self-sufficiency for anything other than small and light preciosities...
The coming of steam coupled with the metallurgy to cheaply make the rails and the engines of the railroad made a difference. It made transport over land wherever the rails ran as cheap as travel up navigable watercourses or across the oceans had ever been. It made it much faster as well. This was a big difference for people who wanted to move about. The was a big difference for spoilable or time-sensitive goods. This was not much of a difference for durable staples over routes that had been and still could be travelled by water. And since most people had for good reason settled near the water routes, the railroad was a very welcome boost, but not that much more. For the rise of Mexico City—with no water routes to the coasts and thus the world economy—the railroad was a game-change. But for the rise of New York City the game-change was not the Iron Horse but rather the Erie Canal.
The true revolution in transportation? The one that mattered for everyone? That came not in the 1830s with the railroad. That came later: it was the iron-hulled ocean-going coal-fired steamship.
It was the year 1870 that saw the Harland and Wolff shipyard of Belfast in northern Ireland launch the iron-hulled (rather than wooden-hulled), steam-powered (rather than wind-powered, but it did still have masts and sails), screw-propellered (rather than paddle-wheeled), passenger steamship the R.M.S. Oceanic. It took 9 days from Liverpool to New York, a journey that in 1800 would have taken more like a month. Its crew of 150 supported 1,000 third-class passengers at a cost of £3–$15–for a third-class passenger. Third class on the Oceanic cost half as much as passage a generation earlier during the Irish Potato Famine had. It coast roughly a fourth as much as in 1800. ...
The falling cost of transporting people marched alongside a falling cost of transporting goods. Food that cost 1.5 cents per pound more in London than in New York in 1840 cost only 0.5 cents per pound more after 1870 . This was a fall in the price of carrying the raw materials for a loaf of bread across the Atlantic. What had cost the equivalent of 30 minutes’ worth of unskilled labor time in 1840 cost less than ten minutes’ worth come 1870. After 1870 every commodity that was neither exceptionally fragile nor spoilable could be carried from port to port across oceans for less than it cost to move it within any country.
All this mattered for two reasons.
First, it meant that everyplace in the world was, as long as there were connecting harbors, docks, and railroads, cheek-by-jowl to every other place, economically. Everyone’s economic opportunities and constraints depended on what was going on across the globe. This had not been true before. Before just the consumption patterns of the elite depended on what was going on in other countries and on other continents.
Second, wherever you could cheaply move goods in mass you could move other things. Most particularly, you could also move and supply armies. Thus conquest—or at least invasion and devastation—became things that nearly any European power could undertake in nearly any corner of the world.