Using newly constructed data series on explosions, deaths, and steamboat traffic, we examine econometrically the causes of increased safety in steamboat boilers in the nineteenth century. Although the law of 1852 (but not that of 1838) did have a dramatic initial effect in reducing explosions, that reduction came against the background not of a system out of control but of a system that from the beginning was steadily increasing boiler safety per person- mile. The role of the federal government in conducting and disseminating basic research on boiler technology may have been more significant for increased safety than its explicit regulatory efforts.