Teaching Guide: Exploring the Steam Engine and Transportation in the Nineteenth Century

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Full Steam Ahead: The Steam Engine and Transportation in the Nineteenth Century, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Using the 1789 patent and the description in A Rudimentary Treatise, explain the fundamental elements of a steam engine. Try to match the steam engine parts described in the book to those in the frontispiece illustration. Hypothesize how the machine works using the illustration and confirm if you were correct using the book’s description.
  2. Compare the ads for the Nyack ferry and the Steamboat Linda. Who would have been the audience for each? What do they have in common? What had changed in the twenty-three years between the advertisements?
  3. Using the Nyack ferry advertisement, the list of Fulton’s boats, the Traveller’s map, and the ads in Disturnell’s Guide, explain the impact of steam-powered transportation on local, national, and international travel.
  4. Based on the image of the Clermont and the image of the steamboat in New Orleans, what can you infer about the environmental impact of steam technology?
  5. The adoption of new forms of transportation reflects social and racial inequalities of the time. Using the photograph of cotton on the New Orleans dock and your outside knowledge, explain how innovation in railroad and maritime transportation impacted the institution of slavery and the trade in goods produced by enslaved labor. Do you think these new forms of transportation were equally accessible to groups such as women and African Americans?

Classroom activities

  1. Have students work in pairs. Ask each student to select a city or town (perhaps from a “hat”) and then use the Traveller’s map and Disturnell’s Guide to figure out the route they would take to get from place A to place B in 1857 and how long it would have taken. Ask students to consider the past, present, and future; what might that journey have consisted of prior to the invention of the steam engine? How would you make that journey today? How might people make that journey 100 years from now?
  2. STEM Extension: As a class, construct a model steam engine. Try to match the modern components of the model with the steam engine parts described in the 1789 patent and the description in A Rudimentary Treatise. See instructions here: Also see YouTube videos: and

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