Intelligence – Railway Observation and Ocular Formation


Here’s a terrific advertising image from the early 1960s for the “hi-dome” observation car on the Santa Fe railway. This isn’t just a great advertising image though…it’s an image about a new kind of seeing!

Of course, seeing and cognition and understanding are all connected. So, seeing in new and exciting (technologically enhanced) ways allows us to understand the world in a new and different way.


During the 19C, Hermann von Helmholtz conceptualised the cognitive model of the intelligent eye. This understood the human eye and brain to be connected. Accordingly, physiological, cognitive and epistemological considerations had to be made in relation to each other. The eye became understood as part of a pattern-recognition approach to cognitive formation and problem solving. Later, the Gestalt psychologists constructed a whole theory of psychological development around this idea. I think that this is still broadly correct.

In the early 1970s, John Berger made a series of films for BBC TV called, Ways of Seeing. In the films, Berger unpicked the ideological and political assumptions that support the way we see the world. He revealed that, in fact, there were many different ways of seeing and understanding the world. It’s just that we usually think of the way that we see the world as natural and don’t think about it much. This is always an individual disaster and leads, inevitably, to a kind of false consciousness. This effects people at every level in society and with very damaging consequences.

Peculiarly, Berger didn’t really consider the impact that technology has on vision and, subsequently, upon vision, cognition and ideology. Obviously, and along with photography and cinema, motor cars and airplanes; the railway played an important role in affording people a different perspective on the world.

Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1986) provides the starting-point for our contemporary understanding of the cultural meanings of the railway system and its mechanical technologies. George Revill (2012.48) briefly describes Schivelbusch’s idea, as follows

the experience of railway travel also shaped the way landscape was viewed…the conventional way of looking at landscape prior to the railway was to observe a receding vista from a static viewpoint, a detailed and closely observed foreground giving way to a more generalised middle ground which guided the eye to towards a specific distant object of interest. From the moving train perspectives were always changing, eye catching focal points in the middle distance were alternately visible and obscured, close and distant, while the foreground whizzed past in a perpetual blur. The speed of travel by railway made it impossible to form such a well-ordered and closely observed landscape in the mind’s eye.


Schivelbusch also connected this insight to the developing 19C spectacular and its attendant ocular entertainments of the diorama and panorama. Indeed, Schivelbusch suggests that the railway experience became the, defacto, optical entertainment before cinema.

These experiences and entertainments provide for a new kind of technically mediated spectator. The subtitle of Schivelbusch’s book is the industrialisation of time and space. The reference to industrialisation is telling and distinguishes an experience that, by virtue of technology addresses the mass of population.

These ideas are described in detail by Ana Parejo Vadillo and John Plunkett who, in Beaumont and Freeman (2007), explicitly link the experience of the railway passenger with ocular formation and cognitive training. The ocular and cognitive discipline implicit in this formation is obviously significant in relation to the requirements of industrial society.

Jonathan Crary (2001) has described how the development of ocular entertainments at the end of the 19C feeds into the interactive and experiential characteristics of speed, acceleration and modernity. Nowadays, we are going through the same process in relation to big data, real-time modelling and operational research.


James Flynn has identified a specific consequence of all this. It is that the cognitive training implicit in this multi-channel and interactive experience actually develops visual and spatial intelligence. This improvement can actually be measured, over time, and in relation to urban populations in developed economies. It is expressed as higher IQ scores.

So, riding on the train, and looking out of the window,  actually makes you cleverer. Glamour and intelligence together, amazing!

Here’s the picture from the beginning in its advert form…


A note about US railways…

The traditional saloon car of the US railroads had open platforms at each end. These provided for open air and panoramic views, especially from the very rear of the train. The bigger loading gauge of US railways made two-storey carriages possible. The raised observation suite allowed for increased comfort and panoramic views through 360 degrees. Each of the major railroad companies had high-rise observation cars during the 1960s.

The smaller loading gauge of UK railways means that these US style high-level observation cars are not practical. Accordingly, the UK observation car is usually a rear-end glazed saloon. Not as practical and not as glamorous.

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