Most of us living in 21st century industrial societies take for granted that our towns and cities are connected by a sprawling network of roads, most of which are reasonably well maintained. But, of course, it wasn’t always thus. In Roads to Power, a book we published a bit earlier this year, Jo Guldi explains when, how, and why Britain invented the system of infrastructure that now crisscrosses modern lands.
In a recent interview with CBC’s Spark, conducted during the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Guldi explained how British infrastructure came to be transformed:
Around 1780 a group of Scottish and Irish landlords started to think hard about what they were reading in this new economist, Adam Smith. And what they realized was that a system of infrastructure on a national level could break down local monopolies, and it could mean that they too could participate in the wealth of the industrial revolution being then experienced in England. And so they set about trying to persuade Parliament to give them sufficient cash to build roads out – an inter-kingdom highway system connecting London with her former colonial capitals of Dublin and Edinburgh. They were successful, and the inter-kingdom highway system was built over the course of thirty years. Thousands of miles of perfectly paved roads: the first expert-built infrastructure system of its kind in the world. Infrastructure on a national scale, connecting all sorts of grids of streets on the local and national level.
It was utopian thinking in 1780. Nobody had ever come up with such an idea. It was a new idea about how capitalism could work, if capitalism were going to defuse the wealth from the few guilds and few metropolises where people were enjoying the industrial revolution to everyone. So, a new idea of capitalism that worked for everybody.
As Guldi explains in the book, the development of this national road system had profound and unexpected ramifications. When travel by road became less challenging, more people became mobile. This led to new groups of people coming into contact, more people from more places roaming the streets of London, and new ways of thinking about the meaning of crowds and about how to interact in a vast world of strangers. Groups realized that they could use the roads to launch political movements or to manage their organizations, with soldiers, Methodists, artisans, theatrical players, and ordinary working people traveling in greater and greater numbers.