The History of Transportation: An Introduction For Students

The History of Transportation: An Introduction For Students
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Reasons to Transport

Throughout history, transportation techniques and technologies have played a vital role in war, trade, cultural development and sport. Though technology has not always developed quickly, transportation is vital to modern life. Without effective and low-cost transportation, it would be extremely difficult for countries to export goods like cars and computers to foreign countries. Likewise, countries that need to import resources like oil, steel and food would be limited to trade with their immediate neighbors. In order to give a sense of how the history of transportation has impacted the world, consider these events and milestones.

Early History

The early history of transportation includes innovation from around the world, with ancient China contributing the compass and stirrup. The transportation technologies developed before the 19th century were later built upon and adapted in later eras.

  • Horses: Horses have been used for several thousand years to pull wagons, send messengers, and transport soldiers. Horse training and horse back riding technologies like the stirrup (invented in China 2000 years ago; in use in Europe by 700 A.D, stirrups help riders to more easily control their horses).

  • The Compass: First used by Chinese sailors around 1100 A.D., the compass made navigating ships and traveling long distances much more reliable and safe.

  • The Caravel: This type of sailing ship was used by Spanish and Portuguese explorers and traders during their voyages of discovery. From Columbus’s first voyage in 1492, the caravel was popular due to its speed. Caravels have also been used for fishing and war.

  • Circumnavigation: As better ships and maps were developed, European explorers embarked on longer voyages. The first known expedition to successfully sail around the world was led by Ferdinand Magellan (1519-1522). Magellan set out on his journey with five ships but only ship returned to Spain; Magellan himself died in a battle during the voyage.

19th Century

The Last Spike in the Transcontinental Railroad (Image Credit: The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco)

The nineteenth century was a great age of transportation advances that would only be eclipsed by the achievements of the twentieth century. The development of steam power, iron clad ships, accurate clocks (needed to determine a ship’s longitude accurately at sea), railways and other technologies defined the century. Socially, transportation became much safer and cheaper than ever before. Large steam powered ships carried millions of European emigrants to America, Canada, and Australia. Let’s review some of the century’s landmark moments in travel technology.

  • Early 19th Century: Canal building in England and the United States was very popular in the early 19th century. For example, the Erie Canal (completed in 1825) made heavy transportation in New York State much cheaper. The Erie Canal was widely admired as a feat of engineering and was expanded throughout the rest of the 19th century.

  • 1825: The Stockton and Darlington Railway opens in England, the world’s first passenger railway. The line covered 26 miles and took more than two hours to complete the journey.

  • 1869: The first transcontinental railway is completed in America. The line was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah. Thousands of workers worked on building the railway including many Chinese workers and Irish laborers; many railway builders worked under very difficult conditions.

20th Century

Aircraft, space ships and cars are just some of the defining technologies of the twentieth century. The automobile changed the configuration of cities in America and around the world; the modern mall and suburb are difficult to imagine without the car. Likewise, safe air travel makes it possible to visit another country for a short vacation and return - a luxury that would have been impossible for Magellan and Columbus to imagine. In contrast to the earlier periods, the 20th century is also noteworthy for making travel more affordable.

  • 1903: The Wright Brothers conduct the world’s very first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Aircraft did not become widely available until the First World War when aircraft were used for espionage, attacks and other military purposes.

  • 1908: The first Model T Ford automobile is built-in Detroit, Michigan. Various automobiles and cars had been built before 1908, but Ford is generally credited with successfully producing affordable cars in large numbers.

  • 1927: Pilot Charles A. Lindbergh completes the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from America. He covered a distance of more than 3,600 miles in only 33 hours. Passenger air transportation companies also came into service in this period.

  • 1961: Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to reach space in the Vostok 1 spacecraft. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, went into space later in 1961.