A view from Dave Trott: Too obvious to see
A view from Dave Trott

Too obvious to see

Railways are only 200 years old.

But actually they’re 2,000 years old, so how does that work?

It was one simple thought that changed them from small local wagonways into a system that revolutionised global transport.

It was the simple thought that made it possible for steam engines to use railways.

So what was that single simple thought?

The ancient Greeks were using wagonways in 600 BC.

If a path is used regularly by wheeled vehicles, it’s more efficient to have a track they can all move on; cut some grooves into rock and movement will be less bumpy and more efficient.

This made sense and was how wagonways progressed for hundreds of years.

But for places where wagonways couldn’t be cut into rock, they used wooden rails with flanges on the side, like an “L” shape, to stop the wheels coming off the rails.

For more than 1,000 years this was how wagonways worked, flanged wooden rails.

By 1758 this was still in use everywhere, like the Middleton railway near Leeds, where it was so efficient a single horse could pull 10-12 tons, four times its normal load.

To protect the wooden rails, they sheathed them in iron plate, but this made the wooden wheels wear out faster. So they made the wheels from iron, but the weight broke the wooden rails. So, in 1767, Benjamin Outram began making the rails from cast iron.

To keep the wheels from coming off the rails, they were still made with a three-inch flange all the way along the outer edge.

And this is how wagonways developed, mainly mine owners building whatever length they needed to move coal from their mines to barges on canals.

But in 1789, at Charnwood Forest Canal, the rails had to be built over a public road, which meant the three-inch-high iron flange would break the wooden wheels of other carts using the road.

So the rails had to be recessed into the ground to the depth of the flange.

They couldn’t afford this everywhere, so they needed a better idea than flange rails.

And this is the simple, brilliant thought that revolutionised travel and allowed the industrial revolution to happen.

Something so obvious, so ubiquitous, we’ve all seen it but we don’t even notice it.

They didn’t solve the problem by changing the rails, they changed the wheels.

After hundreds of years, they took the flange off the rails and put the flange on the wheels.

We are so used to seeing railway wheels with the flange round the inside we don’t even notice it but, until William Jessop did it in 1790, the flange was on the rail not the wheels.

At a stroke, putting the flange on the wheels changed everything.

Iron rails, without the flange, could be made stronger, faster and cheaper in longer lengths.

Rails didn’t have to be checked for broken flanges, just check the flange on the wheels.

Repair work on flange wheels could be done in sheds, not on flange rails miles away.

Mud and stones didn’t build up and block the wheel flanges like they had the rail flanges.

By transferring the flange from the rails to the wheels, they kept all the good points but none of the bad points.

Making each wheel carry its own flange was a Copernican shift for railways.

Twenty years later, George Stephenson would make his first steam locomotive which would be the start of the industrial revolution.

But it couldn’t have happened without the change from flange rails to flange wheels.

It wasn’t technology, it was a thought so simple we can’t believe no-one saw it before.

But without that thought, the technology of steam railways couldn’t have happened.

A single, simple thought that for years had been too obvious for anyone to see.

That’s what advertising should be looking for now, not just more technology.

A single, simple, brilliant thought.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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