'The Swann on Wheels'

Friday, February 3, 2017

The title of this week's column is taken from one of my all time favorite novels, "God Is an Englishman." The setting for this novel begins in the middle of the Victorian England period, and details the issues that the "Industrial Age," brought to the people of that era. One might not consider that age's insights to be of much use for comparison to today's world, I definitely feel it does.

I received an email from a friend recently, that included a column written about today's youth, and their seemingly overwhelming use and addiction to cell phones and social media. When there is a new transformational technological development like the modern cell phone, there are always growing pains.

In "God Is an Englishman," the theme of the novel, describes similar issues that the Industrial Age and the railroads, brought to the people of that time.

The main character in the novel is a former British army officer named Adam Swann. He had spent most of his career fighting in the eastern hemisphere locations of the Crimea and India.

Following a battle where he is left for dead, he awakens to discover a priceless ruby necklace. He hides the prize, and uses it to obtain funding for what he hopes will be the founding of a new life and a future business, when he returns to England. At first, he thinks he will invest in the railroad industry but he learns that many of the new railroad lines are actually going broke.

He rediscovers a unique old business opportunity that involves what most people of the time had thought to be lost in the new industrial age, horse transportation. What had happened during the period of the rapid development of the railroads was a concurrent decline in the use of horses for transportation of people and goods.

While it was obvious that railroads were faster and more efficient at accomplishing these tasks, he finds one area where they are strikingly deficient. Railroads could move large amounts of goods from one point to another quickly, but once they arrived at an unloading depot, they then had to be moved from the fixed rail lines to their eventual destination. There was only one way for this to be done, and that was through horsepower. While the railroads of the mid 1800s had become commonplace, it would be half a century before the invention of the automobile and it's larger cousin the truck.

Adam Swann buys up what many thought to be a seemingly uselessl large collection of draft horses and wagons that had been the backbone of English transportation for years. He builds a network of depots (Swann on Wheels), and offers companies a fast and dependable delivery system, that brings their goods from railroad offloading sites, to their locations. In many ways, his system is much like that of our modern day UPS and FedEx home and business delivery options.

Perhaps it would be easier to understand, if one thinks back to a similar time right here in Nevada. For many decades, the railroads were the main source of transportation for both people and goods for our community. There was a grand old passenger depot just to east of the present day White Grill, where people arrived and departed on two major rail lines.

There were also many warehouses located close to the rail siding lines (one can still see these multiple tracks). Before Nevada had the good paved roads and trucks needed to move these goods, wagons and horses were the only option.

Swann could offer English businesses of that time, a cheaper method of moving their products. Instead of each company owning its own horses and wagons, they could pay Swann to do it for them. I suspect there were at least multiple such horse drawn freight businesses in the Nevada of old.

One of my favorite characters in the novel is a former coach driver named Blub. He had been a famous overland passenger coach driver. For decades he was famous for bringing his riders safely on time in their treks across England. With the advent of the railroads, the coach business succumbed to an early demise.

Swann uses men like Blub, and gives them their pride back. They again become famous for their ability to bring in their cargo on time, despite weather or other obstacle on the nations roads.

Eventually in the family saga and subsequent novels, the business naturally evolves with the times from horse drawn large wagons, to the new trucks becoming common near the turn of the century.

I will leave the rest of this wonderful series to those of you who still read books. R.F. Delderfield is a tremendous writer of the old English novelist style, and I am sure you will enjoy all of his many books.

The comparison of the industrial age, the advent of the railroad, and the decline in the use of horsepower, is quite relevant to the current changes we see in our world today.

In just over two decades, the entire planet has seen a rapid change in the cell phone market. Anyone without a cell phone is the exception, not the rule now, but it is how we use them that is causing consternation among many.

In this column I mentioned a young high school girl's essay, where she admitted to multiple inconsiderate practices, that she and her fellow classmates regularly practiced.

As I read her story, it made me think of my favorite old novel. In both cases mankind is given a marvelous new invention. Along with this new ability they discover there are growing pains in learning how to use this new offering.

I have faith that we will learn to overcome these issues. As the girl in the column stated, her classmates had come up with one new rule. At lunchtime, they all turned their phones upside down, so they could not see the screens. There will likely be many more adjustments and rules to follow that will make the use of cell phones and social media better. God is not an iPhone, but this very American invention with all of its growing pains, has once again set us at the forefront of the world's new technological mountaintop! It is our duty to embrace it, and to fine-tune its "growing pains!"