By the end of the 1860s locomotives could travel at a rate of roughly 30 to 40 miles an hour. In an age of jet travel and fiber optics this may not sound like much — you may be traveling twice this pace while reading these words — but in the 19th century, this was life-altering speed. Together with photography and telegraphy, steam locomotion was believed to be an annihilator of time and space. Never before in history had humans been able to travel at such a rate, communicate instantaneously over such great distances, and see the entirety and variety of the world in a print. Together these cutting-edge technologies transformed the way humans engaged and perceived the world — a world that now seemed a little bit smaller.
James Swensen is an associate professor of art history and the history of photography at Brigham Young University. His research interests include the art and photography of the American West. He is the recipient of the 2016-2019 Butler Young Scholar from the Charles Redd Center for Western American Studies.