The Smithsonian began collecting artifacts of transportation history in the 1880s, and has continued to do so ever since. Transportation has played a special role in the Smithsonians technological collections. More than just machines, transportation technologies have been seen as a key part of American national identity.
J. Elfreth Watkins, the Pennsylvania Railroad engineer who was the Smithsonians first curator of transportation, put the connection between transportation and American identity most clearly.
Through Watkinss efforts, the story of technological progress told at the Smithsonian became primarily a story of national progress. Technology, he wrote, not only improved the worlds material progress but especially benefited America. Nowhere upon the face of the globe does mankind partake of the benefits of personal liberty to as great an extent as in free America. Without the railway and the telegraph . . . this enviable condition could not have been reached. The railroad in particular was responsible for bringing the country together: We have become one peoplespeaking one language, actuated by a common impulse with malice toward none and charity for all.
Watkins exulted in the power of technology, declaring that the birth of the steamboat and locomotive were [sic] coeval with the establishment and first growth of this great Republic, and that by them were secured eternal Liberty! Union!! Peace!!!