So you have this thing you call the "iron horse" that can draw cargo along rails at incredible speeds! What better way to advertise it than to make it race an actual team of horses? What could possibly go wrong?

At the dawn of the 1830s, the people of Baltimore wanted to establish themselves as movers and shakers in America. To do so, they had to prove that they could connect to the rest of the country. They did this literally by building the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. This was only five years after the first railroad built in Britain, so the idea was very new. Once they'd laid the steel, they discovered that getting railcars around was fairly difficult. For a while, it looked like the fastest way to move the carriages was with a team of horses — which kind of defeated the point of a railroad.


Then Peter Cooper, an engineer, presented his new invention. The Tom Thumb was basically a water heater on a wheeled platform, but it carried cars at the lightning speed of 15 miles per hour. B&O was pleased, and decided to demonstrate the prowess of this new technology with a huge public race between the "iron horse," and the "horse horse." It looked, for a while, as if the horse would win. And, in the end . . . it did. The Tom Thumb pulled ahead briefly, to the cheers of the crowd, but a drive band slipped, and Tom ground to a halt and had to be repaired. The first big test of the Tom Thumb ended with its miserable and public failure.

The embarrassment didn't negate the utility of the invention. The railroad expanded and the Tom Thumb kept hauling cars until it was eventually replaced by more impressive locomotives. There was no dignified retirement for the first working locomotive. It was pulled apart for scrap, and Cooper left no technical drawings. When the B&O railway museum finally realized that they were missing a piece of history, they recreated the Little Engine That Could But Didn't from paintings and descriptions. The Tom Thumb has its claim to railway fame, but I like to think that it started a still more sacred and enduring tradition — the tradition of a glitch in a new technology that embarrasses the hell out of a company during a demonstration.

Image: Federal Highway Administration.

Via Wired, B&O Railroad Museum.