The History Of Transportation

From the wheel to the supersonic jet, humanity has made leaps and bounds in transportation. Here is a brief look at some of those inventions, and how they've changed the way we look at the world.

Many people today take for granted the very means of travel available to them. Few stop to think of how life would be different had man never tamed that first wild horse, or shaped that very first wheel. How did ancient man hit on these life-altering ideas? Where did the thought first originate? How have the advances of time led humanity from the ground to the stars?

Archaeologists believe that the very first step toward man-made transportation began in either Mesopotamia or Asia, sometime around 4000-3500 BC, with the invention of the wheel. By this point, man had long since domesticated the horse, and was using it to help him till the soil and plant crops. But the invention of the wheel would eventually make man's ability to transport his crops from one place to another less awkward, and birth the idea of trade and exchange. The invention of the wheel would lead to the development of mass transportation, as man put his new invention to practical uses.

The next logical evolutionary step from the wheel was the invention of the cart and chariot. The two-wheel chariot found its birthplace in Sumeria, and is believed to be the world's first form of wheeled transportation. Built around 3500 BC, this chariot increased the speed of travel over land, and eventually led to the four-wheeled cart, which took the burden of carrying supplies and equipment off of the shoulders of the common man.

As man overcame the boundaries of land travel, his curiosity about the world around him increased. To his aid, man had developed a means of traveling on water even before he had domesticated the horse. The origin of the dugout boat is one of history's great mysteries. Historians are unable to pinpoint when or where the very first water vessel was set afloat, and even speculate that it might have been purely an accident the first time. But, however it happened, the addition of the boat changed the face of transportation. Boats allowed man to, for the first time ever, cross bodies of water without getting wet.

Over time, the simple boat evolved to include a large square of cloth mounted on a central pole. This cloth, called a sail, would turn the boat into a sail-propelled ship. This new addition gave man the ability to use waterways as a means of swift travel from one place to another, and even to travel against the current of rivers. However, the evolution of water travel didn't stop with the sail. Ships would eventually take on a sleekness as they increased in size. Before long, they would add oars and rudders, then deck covers. By Greek and Roman times, ships had grown clunky shipboard towers, as well, which developed, over time, into the Medieval stern- and forecastles. By the late Medieval era, these castles were built solid, as a part of the ship's basic structure. Then, by the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration which followed, ships had gained tiers of rigging and sails, becoming sleek and speedy.

Then, in the 1800s, ships began to shed their sails on the rivers once again. The advent of automation was changing transportation forever. The very first automation in ships was the cumbersome paddlewheel. Due to their bulky form and inability to turn easily, paddlewheel boats were confined to river travel, where they would experience calmer currents and need less manueverablity.

After the paddlewheel came the steamship. These vessels used coal or wood, burned to heat water, which in turn created the steam pressure used to work the pistons which moved the ship. The steamship was to enjoy a long and trusted run on both rivers and seas. Then, in 1912, the first diesel-powered ship, the Danish Selandia, was launched. That diesel engine design was to become the industrial and military standard until after World War II.

Then, in 1958, the first nuclear powered ship was launched. However, nuclear power was soon discarded by industry as too expensive and risky, though it would continue to find use in the military community.

Automation also improved travel by land. Mass transit became a standard, originally through the steam engine of the eighteenth century. But these early trains were slow and very often dangerous. Then, in 1804, locomotives, which used steam to power a series of pistons (much like a steamship), came into use. These locomotives were powerful enough that one engine could pull several cars, a feat hopelessly beyond the capacity of the earlier steam engines.

Over the next one hundred years, various improvements would be made to the locomotive, speeding up transit and attempting to make train travel safer. Then, during World War II, the diesel engine came into widespread use, and steam was almost completely forgotten. Even electricity had been experimented with in the running of trains, as early as 1895, but was considered too expensive and unreliable to run until the advent of the subway, when electricity became the easiest and cleanest means of underground motion.

Automation was not, however, reserved exclusively for mass transit. As early as 800 BC, there is some evidence that steam powered vehicles were used in the Orient. But these were not used for mass transit, but rather for individual travel. However, the first actual surviving record of a powered vehicle is from AD 1670, when a Jesuit missionary in China built a cart driven by a steam turbine. By 1840, this concept had developed into the "road locomotive," a contraption not very unlike the modern-day bus.

In 1860, a Frenchman named Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir devised an internal combustion engine which ran on illuminating gas. The first actual automobile, however, wasn't patented until the 1890s. Advancements have continued to be made in the time since. The automobile was the single most important development in the history of transportation since the invention of the wheel. Automobiles increased personal mobility and permitted people to live at greater distances from their work, leading to the formation of suburbs.

The next stride in transportation looked not to the land, or even to the seas, but to the sky. Although many people have toyed with flight over the millennia, the first sustained, controlled flight didn't take place until December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The inventors of this new flying machine were brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, two bicycle makers. Their invention would eventually grow from a bicycle-propelled contraption to, after World War II, jet-propelled aircraft capable of world-wide mass transit. The aeroplane allowed people to cover great distances in less time, cutting transatlantic travel time in half.

Having conquered flight, man's gaze turned toward the night sky, and the stars. After centuries of rockets unable to pierce the atmosphere and escape the gravitational pull of the earth, the United States announced the formation of the Vanguard Satellite Program (VSP) in 1955, and began exploring what it would take to break away from the Earth. On October 4, 1957, however, the USSR succeeded in launching to very first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik I. The first manned space-flight, however, did not take place until April 12, 1961, when the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in the Vostok I.

Then, on July 16, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. In July of 1975, a joint American-Russian venture began, docking spacecraft together in space. Then, on February 18, 1977, space-flight took another stride with the test flight of the very first reusable space shuttle, the US craft Enterprise.

From the wheel to the stars, man's travel has only ever been limited by the scope of his imagination. As each new challenge is conquered, humanity looks beyond it, to the next challenge. The annals of history are evidence that humanity will continue to stride forward, particularly when faced with challenges in transportation.

© High Speed Ventures 2011