March 2013 marks a significant anniversary. It was 140 years ago this month that Thomas Cook produced the first issue of the ‘Continental Timetable’. With a picture of a camel on the cover (replaced from 1900 by a Rhine steamer), this book communicated the adventure of travel in Europe and beyond. We mark 140 years of the book now known as the ‘European Rail Timetable’ with a retrospect on 1873. A later article in this issue (‘The Book of Hours’ on pages 20–21) reflects on why there is still space for printed timetables in our web-wise world.
Thomas Cook first escorted a tour to Vienna in 1868, squeezing in a brief stay in the city en route from Venice to Budapest. He thus approached Vienna from the south-west. He wrote with great enthusiasm of the Semmering Railway which Cook’s party followed on the journey to Vienna. That route was one of Europe’s earliest mountain railways. Today it is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and it remains as fine a ride as ever.
The journey to Vienna evidently impressed Cook more than the city itself. He detected signs of “commercial energy” but was disquieted by Sunday revelries which he judged to be quite contrary to the spirit of the Sabbath. In the end he and his charges were happy to escape “the bustle and heat of the city” as they boarded the Danube steamer for the 14-hour run to Budapest. Nowadays that river trip from Vienna to Budapest takes less than six hours on a fast hydrofoil.
It was the lure of commerce that tempted Cook’s growing company back to Vienna. That was in 1873, the same year that Thomas Cook launched the very first issue of his company’s European timetable. In March that year, Cook was in Egypt and Palestine, nearing the end of his first world tour which had earned him widespread accolades from the English media. “Cook is the grand courier extraordinary to the human race,” burbled the London Echo, going on to describe Thomas Cook as “the emperor of tourists” and “the incarnation of perpetual motion.” That global circumnavigation was surely the first time in history that a travel company had escorted a tour group around the world.
Cook himself may have been happiest when on his “expeditions”, but the home team back at the company’s new London offices was gearing up for their busiest year ever in early 1873. There was the pressing matter of the new timetable, an influx of American clients to Europe and the upcoming World Exposition in Vienna. That World Fair took as its theme culture and education. In March 1873 Cook’s Excursionist was promoting the fair to the general public in Britain and America as well as laying on special trips to Vienna “for teachers and those engaged in educational pursuits.” We should recall that “the Napoleon of excursions” (as the Civil Service Gazette dubbed Cook in 1864) had secured his first great commercial successes with excursions to the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Vienna was an opportunity to stage a similar coup, but now on a much wider stage.