A Quickie History of the Fast Lane

Notable pit-stops along the march of time

| March-April 1997

From the time of Caesar to Napoleon’s day, the top speed at which people, goods, and information can travel stays essentially the same: the pace of a swift horse or a good boat in a strong wind.

Late 1700s—Improvements in upholstery technology in France allow stagecoaches to pick up speed; an increase in road deaths is one immediate result.

Early 1800s—The modern age arrives in a cloud of steam as railroads and steamships dramatically accelerate the speed of transportation—and of life itself. Some naysayers worry that train passengers might suffer crushed bones from traveling at speeds as high as 35 m.p.h. That particular fear turns out to be unfounded, but the death rate speeds up dramatically nonetheless, thanks to train wrecks and boiler explosions.

1830s—European visitors are fascinated by the frantic pace of life in the United States. An English observer notes that the average New Yorker “always walks as if he had a good dinner before him, and a bailiff behind him.” Another visitor describes American eating habits as “Gobble, gulp, and go.”

1850s—A Swedish visitor to the U.S. Patent Office notes that of the nearly 15,000 machines registered, most are “for the acceleration of speed, and for the saving of time and labor.”

1876—Invention of the telephone permits, for the first time in history, instantaneous responses to someone more than a few yards away.