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The Incentive Trap: When to Launch a Starship

8 May 2017, 16:32 UTC
The Incentive Trap: When to Launch a Starship
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Richard Trevithick’s name may not be widely known today, but he was an important figure in the history of transportation. A mining engineer from Cornwall, Trevithick (1771-1833) built the first high pressure steam engine, and was able to put it to work on a railway known as the Penydarren because it moved along the tramway of the Penydarren Ironworks, in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, running 14 kilometers until reaching the canal wharf at Abercynon. The inaugural trip marked the first railway journey hauled by a locomotive, and it proceeded at a blistering 4 kilometers per hour. The year was 1804.

Image: The replica Trevithick locomotive and attendant bar iron bogies at the Welsh Industrial & Maritime Museum in 1983. Credit: National Museum of Wales.
Consider, as René Heller (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research) does in a new paper, how Trevithick’s accomplishment serves as a kind of bookend for 211 years of historical data on the growth in speed in human-made vehicles from the Penydarren to Voyager 1. The world’s first production car was the Benz Velocipede (1894), whose top speed of 19 kilometers per hour far surpassed the Trevithick railway, but was put to shame by a Stanley Steamer ...

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