Saturday, October 26, 2013

Railroads: Myth and Organization

One of the central puzzles of global history is how a small, backward, and previously culturally and economically insignificant part of the world over the past 500 years conquered much of the world and largely created the present global culture. As late as 1775, the eve of the American revolution, Asia had 80% of the world GDP.

Railroads are a prime example for Professor Harari. The first commercial railroad appeared in Britain in the 1830s. Thousands of miles of track were laid in Western Europe over the next twenty years. Even 50 years later, railroads had only a tiny foothold in Asia, with most of that track being built by Britain in India.

So why didn't China, Persia, and the Turks build railroads? Did they fail to realize their importance? The technology was well within their reach, they had the money, and Europeans were happy to sell to them or build railroads for them - for a fee. Harari suggests, but has not yet discussed in detail, that the difference was in social organization and cultural mythology.