An economic analysis of steam boiler explosions in the nineteenth-century United States

Date of Completion

January 1993


History, United States|Economics, General|Economics, History




This study is an institutional analysis of steam boilers on western river steamboats in the nineteenth century. Thus far, the literature on boiler explosions characterizes them as an example of market failure. The literature also reaches a general consensus that not only was government intervention via safety regulation necessary, but that, with the passage of a safety act in 1852, it was also effective.^ In this study, I examine other determinants of safety in addition to regulation. The institutions examined range from technological advances in boiler construction and management to changing legal relationships, trends in business organization, and markets for insurance.^ I also undertake the first systematic effort to gauge the true safety record of steam boilers. This required creating a data base of over 3300 western river steamboats. These estimates allow me to examine the long-term (1825 to 1860) trends in explosions and deaths per million people (passenger + crew) miles.^ The most important conclusion of this study is that steam boilers on western river steamboats exhibited a long-run trend toward increasing safety. That is, explosions and deaths on a per mile basis decreased throughout the 1825 to 1860 period.^ In fact, a number of institutional changes help explain the long-run trend of increasing safety. Important advances in the science or steam (facilitated by government sponsorship of private research) led to better boiler construction and management techniques. Advances in metallurgy allowed wrought iron to replace cast iron as a construction material for small pieces of the boiler like boiler heads and pipes.^ Another set of institutional changes militated for increased safety as well. Changes in business organization coupled with changes in statutory and common law, made it easier to sue steamboat owners. Law and economics literature explains how imposing liability where liability was previously avoided ought to lead to increasing levels of precaution.^ When considering the affect of these determinants of safety, it is essential to examine them together, rather than individually. As a group, not only are they significant in terms of safety, but that they were also in place by 1850--the eve of the most stringent safety regulation. This fact alone must be carefully weighed before crediting the 1852 safety act with too much causative force. ^