Friday, April 2, 2010

Yesterday's Tech Revolutions: The Stagecoach

Stagecoach Schedule
In Romance literature, stagecoaches exist largely in order to be robbed.* Like much Romance this has some roots in history: we had a couple of stage robberies in this neck of the woods, or California coastal scrub brush, back around the 1880s. Stagecoach service on the Central Coast ended as late as 1904, when the Southern Pacific Coast Line was completed.

Stagecoach robberies go back farther in England; at least I have an image of highwaymen that seems vaguely rooted in the 18th century. They cannot be much older than that, because stagecoaches aren't much older. The word coach comes from the town of Kocs, now in Hungary, whose wainwrights were turning out recognizable coaches from the 15th century, though it is a bit hazy when and where the body was first set on springs. Whenever it was done, for the first time it allowed 'civilian' vehicles, offering some trace of comfort, to travel at the speed war chariots reached 3000 years earlier.

But my concern here is with the 'stage' part, not the 'coach' part. Coaches were a (substantial) refinement of wagon technology. Staging them - operating them along a fixed route, on a regular schedule - was something new, and it revolutionized travel.

In England, so we are told, soon after 1660 a 'diligence' provided service between London and Oxford, about 90 km, a two day trip with a stopover in Beaconsfield. The name for the vehicle aptly conveys how impressed people were by the novelty of scheduled travel. By 1669 a 'Flying Coach' demonstrated a 13 hour trip, and soon the regular diligence was making the trip in a day.

But speed was nearly a side benefit; the really important thing was transportation that was reliable and above all available. Only the very rich could afford to own a coach, but people of relatively modest means could rent a seat in one for a couple of days to get where they were going. And 'travel planning' became more or less what it is now, not organizing an expedition. Within a few decades coach routes had spread across England, and improved roads, turnpikes, were being built for them to run on.

At roughly the same time there was a comparable developments in inland freight transportation, the spread of a navigational canal system - at first simply straightening bends in rivers or smoothing out rapids, but by the mid 18th century striking out on its own, sometimes through tunnels and over aqueduct bridges. Here the key innovation wasn't scheduling but the sheer magnitude and sophistication of the work, 'transportation infrastructure' on a scale not seen before. (Roman roads were strategic infrastructure.)

Like the stagecoach network, the canal network spread rapidly, transforming land freight transportation as stagecoaches transformed passenger travel.

And the point of all this is ...?

Long ago in its salad days, National Lampoon magazine called archery 'a crude attempt by Stone Age people to make a gun.' In much the same way, you could call those 18th century stagecoaches and canals a crude attempt by preindustrial people to build a railroad. The Canal du Midi was a crude attempt by 17th century French people to build a TGV.

The hardware of stagecoaches and canals is quaintly pre-industrial to us, in fact nearly the epitome of quaintly pre-industrial. But the 'software' was a precursor of the industrial age. The economy needed more transportation than the customary means of getting around could provide. In response, traditional materials - horses, wood, stone, and water - were combined with a new way of thinking about transportation.

And without that new transportation software, the waggonways and plateways that also appeared here and there in England at this time would have remained local oddities. The 'natural' way to harness steam for land transportation is a self propelled road wagon. Which also happens to be such a marginal technology that it never caught on, in spite of obvious utility, its culminating achievement being the Stanley Steamer.

Only in a culture where coach turnpikes and canals had already spread across the countryside would people have much chance of stumbling on the combination of technologies needed for railroads. And more to the point, if they had it they wouldn't have much use for it. A railroad in Alfred the Great's England would go broke, and so would a stagecoach line or canal company, because the economy wouldn't begin to support it. You'd have as much luck selling them iPads.

Tech revolutions arise, at least in part, because of this sort of pressure from below. When people want something so badly that they start pushing their established technology in surprising ways, some surprising things can bubble out.

I remember amateur zines put out by SF fans, wargamers, libertarians, and similar riffraff in the 1970s era, using copiers or even archaic memeo machines, that in retrospect feels like a similar precursor technology, a crude attempt by pre-computer people to create the Internet. These same people later turned up on bulletin boards and ARPAnet, doing much the same things they were already doing, and so gave rise to the Internet culture.

It may not always work out this way. Other societies, notably China of the Song Dynasty, had a similar proto-industrial sophistication, but no industrial revolution ensued.

The 'stage' in stagecoach is also, no surprise, the stage of multistage rockets. The orbital diligence has to carry its fresh horses on the stagecoach roof, which broadly is why it costs so much more to reach orbit than Oxford, even though you get there sooner.

This does not mean that some transformative new space techology is about to jump out of the woodwork. In fact, it gives good reason to think it won't. (Though it would be cool to be wrong.)

Our current launch tech, in fact, fits our current space needs pretty well. Worldwide we send up roughly a hundred orbital or deep space payloads every year, ranging from 100 kg or so to a few tons, sent into a wide variety of orbits. This has been fairly consistent for decades.

If we had a fleet of classic shuttles we couldn't use them economically; it would be like building a railroad in order to operate a monthly doodlebug. The most efficient way to support the traffic demand is more or less what we have, a stable of expendable types suited to varied launch profiles.

But if our space traffic expands to the point where we need proper stagecoaches and canals we will build them, and then perhaps something unexpected might come chugging out of the mines.

* For once TV Tropes is unhelpful here, because in the famed movie Stagecoach the problem was irate Native Americans.

A precursor of scheduled transport service was the Venetian merchant galleys, though the schedule was something like 'Departing Bruges every March or so.' Later, these ships were weaponized.

Stagecoach schedule image via Rajiv Patel, and I swear the latest image on his Flickr site is sheerest synchronicity.


Anonymous said...

The thing that drove an increase in frequency and sophistication in inter-city travel was a need by more people to visit other cities for business...currently we have no such need for business travel into space (Earth orbit, Lunar surface, Mars...); but once that happens, then yes, there will be massive pressure for innovations in space-lift.

Two ways that such a situation could happen is either we discover something extremely valuble off-world, or someone comes up with a new type of cheap space launch technology that others use to take their business into space.

Either way, there does need to be a drastic change in the reason we go into space to change the WAY we go into space.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I imagine we'll get better launch vehicles after a few executives have to fly steerage to investigate their employer's newly purchased space assets.

"Johnson, based on your advice we've decided to pursue the acquisition of Solar Array 237. We're going to send a team to look at the facilities."

"Good idea, sir."

"Now, how many gees can you stand?"

"... Pardon?"


ushumgal said...

I'm not sure the development of stagecoaches (and later railroads) is really analogous to spaceflight.

True, they have some common elements: they have both been pushed as a matter of national prestige (though spaceflight bears the bell away in this regard), and they both require a large amount of organization between multiple industries. But demand cannot really push development in spaceflight. We are at a point now where even if there was a much higher demand to get into space, we are limited to chemical rockets. And unless we have a technological breakthrough, we will continue to be limited to them. Granted, huge demand resulting in huge amounts of money for research may lead to a breakthrough being discovered sooner, but there is no guarantee of that.

As I see it, the only real issue is getting to orbit. That is were the money is right now, since orbit can be used for many useful and profitable sorts of satellites. Deep space exploration, alas, doesn't have much in the way of an immediate return.

H said...

Well, the analogy is more in the field of how we use tecnology. Stagecoaches after all weren´t a revolutionary new tecnology but instead a new, more efficient way of using it.
The questions in the field of spacefligth are these:
Is there going to be a need for easier and cheaper acces to spacefligth? (and by this I mean a need that doesn´t have easier alternatives on earth)
If such a need arises, can we use our current space-launch tecnology in a more efficient way? (For example, by taking advantage of massproduction or standarization?)

Rick said...

There are potential improvements in chemfuel launch, from mass production to reusables, and more speculative alternatives from laser launch to elevators. But there's no real push for any of them, because the current and projected traffic does not justify the development cost.

Thucydides said...

There is a sort of chicken and egg problem with expanding human presence in space.

I have recently re read a presentation on the "Aquarius system", a pressure fed SSTO launcher loosely derived from the 1950 era "Hydra" sea launch program. The launcher delivers a one ton payload of fuel, consumables or duct tape at a very low cost per launch or per kilogram. The low cost is predicted on very relaxed standards (up to 33% loss rates are accepted) for bulk, low value cargo launches. The added value that I can see is each successful launch provides a lot of pre built volume for storage, living space or even refurbishment as parts of deep space vessels. With a diameter of 4 meters; LH2 tank length: 21 meters; LOX tank length: 8.4 meters; GH2 Pressurant tank length: 4 meters; total length: 43 meters, a lot of low cost "real estate" becomes available.

This might be enough to spur a "land rush" to claim and utilize these vehicles in orbit (and there will be a lot, economic considerations suggest they have to be built and launched at a rate of 100/year for the company to be profitable). Even with the projected 33% loss rate, there are still over 60 available every year for re-purposing.

The technology isn't new at all, just repackaged, and manned spacecraft to take advantage of these building blocks don't have to be more sophisticated than a Soyuz or LEM. A few high cost, high reliability launches for the manned spacecraft (perhaps in conjunction with crew changes on the ISS) to gather cargoes and round up spent Aquarius launchers should be enough to start.

UmbralRaptor said...

This graph suggests that the demand isn't there, and won't be there for a very long time. It's vaguely disconcerting how clearly you can see the end of the cold war on there...

ushumgal said...

I do take the point about developing SSTOs and such, there is certainly room to improve, but I still think the only way we will have a 'gold rush' situation is when a new technology is developed that dramatically lowers launch cost. Still, the Aquarius system is definitely an interesting idea.

Viz orbital real estate, I did always think that rather than letting the Mir burn up, of no use to anyone, they should have boosted it to a middle-high orbit where it would not be in danger of being damaged and just left it there in case anyone came up with a use for it. Even if it were just scavenging it for metal plating or whatever, it is still manufactured materials put up in space at enormous cost. Why not leave it there in the hope that it may be of use to someone again?

Cityside said...

Good call, noting the contribution that the overland stage gave to rail transportation. For all its "revolutionary" nature, the railroad took its own sweet time evolving. By the time the Liverpool and Manchester opened in 1830, steam engines had been used in mining applications for over a century, and wagonways for even longer (also, curiously, primarily in mining applications) and had been using cast iron rails for over fifty years (the way coal, iron and steam industries created demand for one another and kick-started a whole new economy is rather fascinating...)

The real leap, in many ways, may have been what was at best a relatively marginal technology and applying it to passenger service. The novelty fact certainly contributed to early growth. But, the railroads did have an advantage over space travel: there were already folks living at both ends of the line.

Speaking of, its interesting that Manchester - one of the prototype industrial towns - was one terminus of not just Britain's first passenger railway, but also Britain's first "true" canal:

Ferrard Carson said...

From many of the previous discussions, it seems we all agree that the tech exists for (relatively) cheap space-flight - just not the will. In regards to that, I'd have to say that it's very telling that most sci-fi media with a convincing backstory (e.g. something that people accept as a sensible premise) usually involve an Earth Shattering Kaboom, or crippling over-population, or some other major calamity that makes getting off of Earth very attractive.

Pretty much, there has to be a very convincing answer for "Why would we want to leave Earth?" for us to even contemplate putting the infrastructure in place to do so. Doesn't seem like we'll find an adequate answer anytime soon (although who knows? SCIENCE! might have something up its sleeve) and for that matter, by the time we do find one (e.g. something pushes Mars into intercept course with Earth) it'll probably be too late to pull a Firefly and leave "Earth-That-Was" in droves.

~ Ferrard

Rick said...

I (hazily) recall reading that re-using structures - especially fuel tanks - is problematic. Perhaps even in hard vacuum trace amounts of the stuff hangs around, so you can't really safe the tankage for human use.

But the underlying challenge is that only space geeks like us worry about launch capacity as such. In the real world they're just concerned to launch particular payloads.

I'm not sure that it is a question of not having the will. We are doing quite a lot in space, including deep space - there are probably a dozen or so interplanetary missions en route, that we mostly forget about until they reach their destinations.

It's just that human spaceflight has turned out to be a modest part of the whole picture, instead of the entire picture, as was assumed in the pre-automation 50s.

Jean-Remy said...

On the one hand I'll grant there does not seem to be a lot of incentive to develop new or revolutionary space technologies because there is no economical incentive to do it.

However spaceflight is a brand new endeavor. I've made the point before that between the Columbus expedition of 1492 and the building of a true self-sustaining permanent colony on Plymouth Rock, a few centuries rather than a few decades had elapsed.

We have been caught kind of off-guard by the as yet unseen rapidity of technological evolution. It made us want everything, and made us want it now. I believe Apollo was a mistake. It was too early. It promised us the Moon, but in a way it was less even than the first Columbus expedition. The expectations it set up, however, were unrealistic. It was a showstopper, and an impossible act to follow. The Space Shuttle was an attempt, and in some ways it was successful at furthering the dream, but in the end it was also a failure because Apollo was such an impossible act to follow.

The problem with this is that our expectations were thrown too high, and when reality came back to cash in its chips the "down" was, as far as the general public was concerned, disillusionment.

But this backlash is actually as disproportionate as the expectations born from Apollo. Slow and Steady has been the post-cold-war way, and it has worked wonderfully. Orbital space is full of satellites that coordinate our daily lives, from weather forecasts to telecommunications to precision navigation. We have observatories and telescopes making new discoveries about the fundamental structure of the Universe, there are dozens of deep space probes on location or on the way, and there are rovers on Mars! How can we even say "there is nothing in space" for us.

Truth is, we are impatient. We want it all now, colonies on the Moon and bases on Mars and spaceships on the way to Jupiter. Sadly neither of these are likely in our lifetimes. But what are our lives compared to the thrust of civilization? Who are we to say today there is no need for new launchers and heavy space traffic? Space isn't going away, it'll wait for us. Just because we can't envision right now the kind of traffic that requires a space elevator and cities on the Moon and colony ships on the way to Mars doesn't mean they'll never happen. We might not even need an Earth-shattering kaboom to do it, just a shift in our needs and desires, and those are a dime a dozen if history is anything to go by.

Rick said...

Take away Apollo and the space age looks much more like a steady progression, from orbital test flights and experimental probes to a standing orbital presence and numerous deep space missions.

Jean-Remy said...


I think Apollo was one bridge too far. Sadly it discolored our view of what the space program should look like by seeming to succeed and making subsequent efforts look like failures. In the end I think it did far more harm than good to the space program.

Thucydides said...

I'm not sure about the inadmissibility of used fuel tanks as real estate. I have read of proposed "wet launch" systems where the space station module doubles as a fuel tank during launch, and there were endless proposals to repurpose Space Shuttle external tanks (extra delta V was required to ensure they did not make it into orbit).

Hardware might have other uses besides living space, and we might not even realize what the most profitable use is at first. Maybe the killer app is a wreaking yard that disassembles hardware for reuse, or surface area for solar cells.

The Apollo project did give us a very distorted view of what the space program "should" look like, but there were a lot of well thought out plans derived from the Apollo program to go to Mars and beyond; "2001 a Space Odyssey" was a pretty straight forward extrapolation of technology and goals as understood in the mid 1960's (only the HAL 9000 AI was and is beyond our capabilities).

For now the Apollo program should be compared to the Vikings getting a toehold in Labrador ("Vineland") rather than Columbus sailing to the Caribbean.

Bobcat said...

I actually recognize the stagecoach sign: It's over in Old Sacramento, just twenty minutes from my front door.

This does bring one thought to mind: Sacramento is one end of the Pony Express. How would that play out in a SF setting? Like the stagecoach, but applied to an even faster, leaner concept. Pure speed. Small cargoes, sent out with the maximum priority imaginable. Medicines, data chips, perhaps even fusion plant engineers.

Interesting concept?

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment boards! Yes, the sign is in Old Sacramento, though I merely swiped it off the Internet.

What you are describing is much like what I call courier ships, intended to carry a small payload at the highest practical speed.

This probably works best in an FTL setting where there are no FTL comms, so that mail as well as express parcels must be physically transported. In an in-system setting, or with FTL comms, express material probably just goes on fast liner types, because there's not the message traffic.

Jean-Remy said...

"This probably works best in an FTL setting where there are no FTL comms, so that mail as well as express parcels must be physically transported."

Going Meta.

I actually work on a universe where FTL comm exists, but at extremely low bandwidth and huge costs. It is exclusively reserved to coordinate wormhole gates (to avoid silly things like causality breakdowns that would destroy the network) and absolutely time-critical military communication. By low bandwidth I mean text-only, and every bit takes a second and costs millions. Everything else has to be carried physically. Interstellar trade is focused almost exclusively on data.

You CAN have your cake and eat it, too. Just bake two.