The concept of distance of any Gipuzkoan citizen at this end of 20 th century is radically different from the way it was only two centuries ago. Today it is completely normal for the students from the Journalism Faculty to travel to Leioa every day from any part of our province. Nobody is surprised when an executive takes an early morning plane from Hondarribia, attends a work meeting in Madrid or Barcelona and comes home that same evening. We think it is the most natural thing in the world to cover 900 kms separating Paris from Irún in just over five hours on High-Speed trains. In short, on acquiring our home, we often find that the distance from the house to our place of work or the educational centres attended by our children is not the aspect which most conditions our choice. That's what cars, buses, trains, motorbikes and bikes are for!
However, the panorama was exactly the opposite only two centuries ago. A journey from Donostia to Bilbao could mean more than three days on foot. Of course it was impossible to go further than from Donostia to Renteria in a day, while no-one even considered living further than two kilometres away from the place where they carried out their main everyday activities. The world of two hundred years ago was extremely closed and, in fact, very few people ever left the land on which they were born.
The world of our great-great-grandparents didn't include much more than their farmhouse, their church and the surrounding mountains. Today however, thanks to the revolution of transport, nobody is surprised when a couple goes round the world on its honeymoon. It is only a question of money, since everything we need to make the journey is within our reach.
But means of transport in 1795 were very different from present-day versions.
The most common means of overland transport were our own two legs. The maximum distance that could be covered in a day was some 40 or 50 kilometres.
Horse, mule or ox-drawn vehicles could go somewhat further. A stagecoach could cover more than 100 km. in a day, always depending on the state of the poor roads of the time. A simple downpour could make the best road into an impassible quagmire. On the other hand, the capacity of transport was limited since animal haulage didn't have the strength to pull heavy loads. By way of a solution to this inconvenience, tracks were lain in some parts of England, over which carts could roll more easily. This was the origin of the first railways which, normally used around mining exploitations, covered extremely short distances.
Sea and river transport, when the latter was possible, were more active. Wind-blown ships could transport loads of up to 500 or 1.000 tons, meaning that their capacity made up for their slowness.
The development of transport was therefore hindered by the limited capacity of the energies known until then, the strength of animals and the wind.
In 1782, James Watt built the first steam engine, which was soon put to use pumping water out of the mines and later as the driving force of the incipient industralisation in Great Britain.
The capacity of this new source of energy was extraordinary and several attempts were made to apply the strength of steam to transport.
The main inconveniences of the steam engine were its enormous size, with respect to boilers, engines, distributions, etc., and the huge amount of water and fuel required. This is why it first found its simplest use in navigation. Steam-produced energy meant that ships, which had the space to house all the necessary machinery and accessories, became faster and could take on greater loads, also gaining in safety, since the strength of the steam engine meant that the ship could be controlled in bad weather, while strong northwesterly winds all too often blew them into the coast.
Efforts were also made to apply the steam engine to road transport, but the excessively heavy equipment caused the failure of all attempts. The spectacular steam cars, barely autonomous, sunk relentlessly into the appalling road surfaces of the time.
After the failure of the first steam cars, it was understood that the only way of putting Watt's engine to use on land transport was by means of the railway, since its tracks were able to withstand the weight of the engines. On the other hand, the limited friction of the wheels against the metal tracks meant an important increase in the output of steam engines.
Richard Trevithick launched the first experimental steam engine in 1804, but it wasn't until 1830 that the first railway, built by Robert Stephenson, was opened between Liverpool and Manchester, the first in the world to be moved by steam engines.
Thanks to the succes of this railway, new lines were soon built in England itself and later all over Europe and America. A dense network of railways was therefore established and, in a few years, joined places to one another which had until then seemed extremely far away from one another. Nothing would ever be the same again. The barriers imposed by distances that had been insurmountable, had been broken.
Table nº 1
Dates when the first European railways were opened.
England: Liverpool to Manchester, 15th September 1830
Belgium: Brussels to Malines, 5th May 1835
Germany: Nuremberg to Furth, 7th December 1835
France: Paris to Versailles, 24th August 1837
Russia: Saint Petersburg to Pavlosk, 30th October 1837
Austria: Florisdorf to Wagram, 17th November 1837
Holland: Amsterdam to Haarlem, 20th September 1839
Italy: Naples to Portici, 4th October 1839
Switzerland: Zurich to Basel, 9th August 1847
Spain: Barcelona to Mataró, 28th October 1848
The Basque Country: Dax to Baiona, 26th March 1855
Sweden: Goteberg to Joosered, 1st December 1856
Portugal: Lisbon to Carregado, 28th October 1856
Gipuzkoa: Beasain to Donostia, 1st September 1863