Charles Minot was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, on August 30, 1810. He was educated at Harvard College, graduating in 1828 and subsequently studying for a career in law. He worked in a law office before securing an appointment as superintendent of the Boston and Maine Railroad, a short but influential line serving the Bay City’s Brahmin elite. In this position, he was able to shape the development of the American railroad locomotive industry, but after just one year he left for a similar post on the much larger New York and Erie Railroad. That line, designed to link New York City with the Great Lakes, ran parallel to the Erie Canal. It had suffered from a series of technical blunders, beginning with a doomed plan to build the railroad on stilts to lower construction costs. In the end, the railroad was established with a five-foot gauge, making it one of the longest broad gauge railroads in the world.
As superintendent of the Erie, Charles Minot strived to create efficient managerial systems to administer the line. His most important innovation came in 1851 when he realized the casual remarks telegraph operators sent each other about the state of train service could be put to good use. A commercial telegraph line, built by Ezra Cornell, himself a pioneer in the development of that useful means of communication, paralleled the Erie. This telegraph line, and its use as a means of exchanging gossip by the operators in odd moments, gave Minot the idea to employ it as a way to control train movements. He devised a system of dispatches using codes to inform depots of the location of approaching trains. By this means, trains could be sent forward or held on the single-track Erie. Before this innovation, trains had to pass loops and awaited the arrival of an approaching train before proceeding. The result had been much vexatious waiting, always in ignorance of the time the oncoming train might arrive.
Minot’s actual moment of inspiration came on September 22, 1851. While waiting impatiently on a train in a siding at Turners, New York, Minot wired the next station for news of train movements ahead of his own. Receiving a satisfactory answer he told the engineer to go to the next station, where the routine would be repeated. Legend has it the engineer refused and Minot himself ran the train forward. The trick was repeated several times and unnecessary delays avoided. Minot quickly put his system for telegraphic train control into effect, and other lines quickly followed suit.
Minot, a large man with a keen sense of humor and an appreciation for the work of his employees, angered the directors of the Erie by refusing to agree to demands for cost-cutting. He left to join the Michigan Southern Railroad in 1859. Here his willingness to listen to his subordinates and his desire to improve the administration of the railroad made him a popular figure on the line. But in 1861, the Erie directors recognized their mistake in letting him go and offered him the position of general superintendent, which he accepted with alacrity.
Charles Minot was willing to admit error, as in the case of his desire to place the carriage in which he rode to inspect the line ahead of the locomotive. Standing on the front platform on one of his regular runs, the car jumped off the tracks and threw him to the ground. Minot, who had been advised by other officers of the company not to persist with the practice, discontinued it. His legacy, in addition to the use of the telegraph to control train movements, was carried throughout the United States by the managers he trained on the Erie. He retired in 1864 and died peacefully at home in Somerville, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1866.