The Railroads

The invention of spreadsheets was necessitated by the boom of railways in the 19th century. Before neatly gridded cells, columns, and rows, trains scattered freely through the lands of America, taking bullet paths through vast space, sometimes colliding with each other and sublimating from metal to gas, so that scattered across deserts and prairies were little campfires, right on the wood and metal tracks, amidst millions of acres of darkness. As nobody tracked the trains, nobody tracked the campfires. Every day, more trains would lurch in and sear themselves in the flames, and burst and explode, feeding the little campfires. Throughout the decades, writhing, swelling infernos spread across American badlands and salt flats, pouring brown carbon into the upper troposphere. Eventually, at some point in the 19th century, the entire American railway system – all million miles of interlaced track and deforested wood and hot rolled steel – was on fire.

Yet the prospectors, investors, and railway managers found ways to insulate themselves in thickly-walled offices beyond ember’s reach of the nearest routes. Congregated around heavy ebony and mahogany tables, they launched off more trains, through tracks that no longer resembled wood. These trains sped off, parting flames as long as they could until their internal combustion fused with the burning ashy air. And so it came to be that sometime in the 19th century, the hectares of land between the coasts were strewn with the ghosts of cremated train cars, while their living counterparts still zipped mechanically around the country without pause.

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Oliver was a child of five years, a member of the first generation of boys that wore denim overalls and fell in love with steam engines, pistons, and crankpins. Clutching his father’s wrist with excitement, he boarded one of the first passenger trains to carry the public across neighboring towns. The prospectors, investors, and managers had fiendishly twisted their smiles as they came up with this plot.

Inside a train car, wide-eyed Oliver rubbed his index finger on the metal walls and narrow windows. His legs wriggled and his father felt proud.

Looking at a spreadsheet cell I feel like I am peering through the cloudy, smudged, narrow window of Oliver’s train car. The faces in the car are obscured by the smoke and ash that already rises around them, just as steam begins blasting and billowing out of the engine.

Image: Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway by Joseph Mallord William Turner. 1844. Oil on Canvas. National Gallery, London