After two recent crashes, airline industry officials around the world have grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8. On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump responded to the situation by avoiding the question of the Boeing plane’s safety and instead laying blame for the crashes on increasingly complex technology. Ignoring the evidence that technological advancements and improved infrastructure have made air travel much safer, Trump instead argued for simpler machines.
Trump’s reaction was widely mocked, but the impulse he had was by no means an unfamiliar one in the history of technology. Revisiting the Victorians’ responses to rapid technological change punctures the illusion that Trump wants to create of human instinct triumphing over the threat of machines. As the example of the Victorian railway shows us, only a push for nuanced, adaptive regulation can win out over fear.
By today’s standards, it’s now “old and simpler,” but when the railway arose in the 19th century, it was the first large system of mechanized transportation, an innovation that also sometimes proved perilous. The spread of train travel expanded Britain’s global reach by connecting urban centers to global shipping routes at previously unimaginable speeds. But those advances came at the cost of disastrous railway accidents.
A symbol of the progress of modernity, the steam engine also epitomized the terrible power of technology run amok for many observers at the time (a fear that echoes today in Trump’s tweets). Passengers imagined the engine running off a bridge, over the edge of an embankment or into a river, dragging helpless, interlocked train cars behind it. But like airplane travel, train transportation seemed more dangerous than it actually was. Though accidents on ship or road were more common, railway disasters loomed largest in the public imagination, and newspaper accounts circulated images of destruction.
Fear of change exaggerated the risks of train travel: Trains threaded through villages and connected them to urban junctions. Whether citizens were happy to take advantage of train travel’s convenience or intimidated by the changes it heralded, they could not escape the train’s presence. Belching smoke, spewing cinders and piercing the air with its whistles, the train roared through the countryside. The unavoidable integration of the railway symbolized a threat to older ways of life.
In response, newspapers, novels and other media not only reported actual crashes but amplified the potential for accidents: the complex network of signals that could be crossed, the precise timing that err, the power of unpredictable machines. A satiric poem in the 1851 issue of Punch - Victorian England’s version of the Onion - highlights the emotional clout of these fears. It darkly mocked: “I’m going by the Rail, my dears, where the engines puff and hiss; And ten to one the chances are that something goes amiss.” And when that happens, the speaker warns, “say good-by to poor Papa!”
Queen Victoria, a media-savvy ruler, responded to these fears by publicly appealing for improved infrastructure. In an 1865 letter published in the Illustrated London News, for instance, she emphasized "the heavy responsibility which [the railway directors] have assumed since they have succeeded in securing the monopoly" on the country's travel. Accountability, this suggests, is on corporations and regulating bodies to ensure adequate safety standards and better coordination among the various railway lines.
As railway corporations resisted the recommended safety measures, however, Victoria turned to the government. After the Kirtlebridge rail accident in 1872, she urged the government to legislate on the issue. Victoria argued in a letter to Prime Minister William Gladstone that those in power had a responsibility to “the poor people who have to travel constantly by rail and who cannot even have the comparative security which those who travel in first class carriages.” In both cases, Victoria’s responses to these accidents frames the informed management of technological complexity as a civic responsibility. But it wasn’t until the tragic Armagh rail crash of 1889 killed 80 people that Parliament fulfilled that charge.
The Victorians’ creation of technological infrastructure may seem like the remote past, but that same approach has yielded marked advances in air travel safety in recent decades. Collision avoidance systems, advanced warning systems and improved pilot communication have all resulted in extremely low fatality rates. The two recent, major crashes only four months apart represent a striking departure from recent years.
Yet Trump has responded to these accidents by calling for a rollback of the very systems that have made air travel safer. This response, though illogical, does offer a soothing fantasy. If the problem is that airplanes are too complex, and quick-thinking pilots have been replaced by “computer scientists from MIT” or perhaps “Albert Einstein” himself, then we have only to oust the eggheads to tame the machine and return to a safer time.
But as the Victorian experience with railway crashes suggests, adapting to technological change demands a strong infrastructure, not a technophobic fairy tale. The Federal Aviation Administration cannot be guided by illusory tweets or reassured by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg’s phone calls. Instead, it should hold firm to the Victorian vision of civic responsibility, updated for the 21st century. If we are going to trust our pilots as we hurtle through the sky, we first need to trust the regulations governing their industry.
Megan Ward is an assistant professor of English at Oregon State University.