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engine / locomotive / iron horse

engine. A compound machine or mechanical contrivance by which any physical power is applied to produce a given physical effect. The term engine is more commonly applied to massive machines, or to those of great power, or which produce some difficult result. It takes, in composition, other words, designating either the source of power, as steam engine, air engine, caloric engine, electro-magnetic engine; or the purpose to which it is applied, as fire engine, pumping engine, locomotive engine, calculating engine; or some peculiarity of construction, operation, or use; as single-acting or double-acting engine, high-pressure or low-pressure engine. — Webster, 1882

locomotive. A wheel-carriage supporting and driven by a steam-boiler and one or more steam-engines, and used to convey goods or passengers, or to draw wagons or railway cars. The cut shows the general arrangement of the most common kind. The boiler A A and the engines, of which G is one cylinder, rest on the frame which extends from N to M, and contains the jaws and driving-boxes under the springs L L as shown. The frame rests in front of the springs of the truck, of which X X are the wheels, and hangs behind on the equalizing-beam K, extending to the springs L L. The circle H H represents the trailing-driver, and J J the leading-driver, B is the smoke-box, C the chimney, W the ash-pan, E the sand-box, and F the cab. The line V G represents the piston-rod, U V the connecting rod, and U U the parallel rod. T is the steam-chest, containing the valve, T S the valve-rod, and S R the rocker arms on the rock-shaft. The link-motion extends between the forward driving-shaft and the arm R, and, with R S T, forms the valve-gear. The pumps P draw water from the tender through the feed-pipe OP, and force it into the boiler through the check-valve Q. — Webster, 1882

The train was coming, louder. They stood by the satchels on the platform and saw it coming. Laura did not know how they could get the satchels on the train. Ma’s hands were full, and Laura had to hold on to Mary. The engine’s round front window glared in the sunshine like a huge eye. The smokestack flared upward to a wide top, and black smoke rolled up from it. – By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 3, “Riding in the Cars”

In the Little House books, although Laura Ingalls Wilder uses engine and locomotive interchangeably, the locomotive was a vehicle that ran on rails or tracks and was powered by one or more steam engines. Coal was used to heat water in a boiler, which turned to steam, setting in motion the pistons which caused the wheels to turn, propelling the locomotive along the track.

Letters shown on the 1882 dictionary illustration below accompanied the definition for the word locomotive in Webster’s 1882 Dictionary.

The photograph at right is of a Chicago and Northwestern locomotive on the Winona and St. Peter division near Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881. The photograph was taken in March 1881.

Iron horse. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the train engine / locomotive is also called an “iron horse.” This term was first used for early 1800s’ steam engines at a time when horses still powered most machinery. The term is used when Wilder writes about Laura’s first train ride and after Pa takes her to see the men working on the railroad grade. Both times, Laura is naive about the workings of the railroad, and the archaic term mirrors her lack of knowledge.


engine (SSL 1, 3-4, 10; TLW 21, 31; THGY 15; PG)
     engineer (TLW 21; PG) – One who manages an engine; an engine-driver. Especially, one who controls or directs motion by means of an engine, as a locomotive, steamboat, and the like.
iron horse (SSL 4, 10)
locomotive (SSL 10; TLW 21)