Nothing Like It In The World by Ambrose is a good but not great recount of the building of the transcontinental railroad. A great factual overview, a good sense of the broad themes of the time and effort, but I’d have liked a little more depth on some of the characters involved.
It is very fascinating and topical in its discussion about the government incentives — land and capital — that were provided to the entrepreneurs. These incentives were tremendously lucrative, and they had many good and bad impacts — a speedy buildout of the railroad, large private capital commitments that might otherwise not have happened, an increase in the value of public lands, and a huge amount of financial abuse. It is interesting to parallel this to buildouts of our time — the internet buildout, the glacially slow buildout of broadband in the US, emerging private exploitation of space. In the broadband arena, the government has not created the incentives for rapid buildout, rather they have left the buildout in the hands of conservative incumbents and well see where we are.
For private space exploitation, the government hasn’t done much either. I wonder if we could stomach the abuses and the human deathtoll from a highly accelerated buildout — certainly the railroad was built with a somewhat cavalier approach to the lives of the workers, could we stomach this in today’s society?