Elon Musk’s Bad Historical Analogy

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

During his appearance at the International Space Station R&D Conference on Wednesday, Elon Musk recited an old argument to support his plans to colonize Mars.

Back in the day,California was an empty place where almost nobody lived. At least until some crazy visionaries built the Transcontinental Railroad to it even though everyone thought it was a completely crazy thing to do.

Jump ahead 150 years, and California is the place you want a be, a center of commerce, innovation and culture people migrate to when they want to be a movie star, have an idea for a new app or simply want a fresh start. All because some visionaries had a crazy idea.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Makes you want to sell the house and buy a ticket on Musk’s Mars Express, right?

That’s what Musk is hoping. There’s just one slight problem with this analogy: it’s not based on very much.

Musk may be a genius at business and innovation, but he’s a terrible amateur historian. In fact, he gets the empty part of the Transcontinental Railroad project completely backwards.

There is a kernel of truth in what Musk says. When a transcontinental railroad was first proposed in the United States in 1830, it was a crazy idea, but for perfectly sane reasons.

There weren’t that many Americans living in California, which was then Mexican territory. It wasn’t even that heavily populated with Mexicans and Native Americans.

A railroad at that point would have been a boon to land speculators and to traders wanting to connect to Asia through  West Coast ports. But, those benefits didn’t outweigh the cost and complexity of trying to build a railroad largely through a foreign country. There was little percentage in it.

California wasn’t the only problem in terms of available land. Oregon Country, which lay to to the north of California, was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain. The two nations had overlapping claims on the vast region.

That situation changed in the late 1840’s. The United States and Great Britain peacefully settled their Oregon boundary claims along the 49th parallel in 1846. Two years later, the United States gained California and a large swath of the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War.

To cap off this vast territorial expansion, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California the same year. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded into the new American state seeking their fortune in the gold fields. Most of them failed, but many ended up staying anyway. A year after the gold strike, California became an American state.

By the early 1850’s, it was not a question of whether to build a railroad to the West Coast, but how and where. It made sense for political, economic and military reasons to bind the new West Coast possessions to the rest of the country. It was, in modern parlance, a no brainer.

The U.S. Army surveyed four viable routes to the West Coast and a fifth north-south route through California and Oregon. By 1855, everything was looking real good.

But, as sometimes happens in big infrastructure projects, Congress became gridlocked over the spoils, specifically which east-west route to select. This North-South split was deeply intertwined with a bitter divide over slavery and whether to admit newly organized Western territories as free or slave states.

The project was delayed for years by partisan bickering. The railroad route remained unsettled when the Civil War broke out in 1861.

Free of Southern members, the U.S. Congress was able to select a route and charter two companies, Union Pacific andCentral Pacific, to begin work on the railroad in 1862. It would take seven years to complete.

Secession movements in California and Oregon added urgency to the project as a way of solidifying their loyalty to the Union. But, to repeat, the project had been on the books for about a decade at that point and had broad support.

The Golden Spike ceremony celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah in May 1869.

When the railroad was completed in 1869, it provided a way of reaching California that was superior to the overland and shipping routes that settlers had used previously. It accelerated an on-going process of westward migration that had begun decades before.

And here’s what Musk gets things backwards about the Transcontinental Railroad. California had a substantial population by the time it was built. But, vast stretches of territory through which the railroad ran – Utah, Nevada and the Great Plains – were largely empty. Or, at least empty of the American settlers the railroads wanted to serve.

There were Native Americans who occupied the land. Most of them did not like the railroad intruding into their territories. And they fought a valiant but losing battle against the iron horse and the largely white settlers who followed.

The relative lack of American settlers between the eastern terminus in Council Bluffs, Iowa and California was actually a major headache for the two railroads. The railroads were granted huge tracts of land along the route as compensation. But, it took a while to survey the tracts, record the deeds, and sell and develop the properties.

In the meantime, the railroads had to maintain service over a vast stretch of territory where there were few settlers. The line stretch across vast deserts, rugged mountains and plains subject to all measures of bad weather. It was a costly proposition.

The distance between the Earth and Mars is full of empty space that doesn’t need to be filled in. But, Mars does. Unlike California, Musk will be starting from scratch with no people, no settlements and no infrastructure. That is a very different proposition from the Transcontinental Railroad.

Musk also lacks something that made the railroad possible: a national consensus that colonizing Mars makes sense for a set of clearly defined economic, political and military reasons.

The economic return on investment is unclear. There is no strong political support for Musk’s main argument that we need to back up humanity on Mars in case Earth is wiped out in some future cataclysm. The military case for a Mars colony is currently non-existent.

Musk has put forth an ambitious transportation architecture in the hope that if he builds it, governments and private companies will go to Mars and fund the massive infrastructure needed to keep a large population alive, healthy and productive there.

But, here’s the Catch-22: he badly needs the government to invest a substantial sum into the transportation system to get to that point. Without a compelling set of reasons to do so, the project is hard to move forward.

For a more detailed discussion of this subject, please see the three-part series: Musk, Mars & the Iron Horse

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