History of transportation

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(Last updated on: 18/10/2021)

The history of transportation is a long and fascinating one! Just like the history of tourism, we have come a long way since transportation was first introduced and there are now many different types of transport around the world. In this article I tell you all about the fascinating history of transportation and the transport industry….

The history of transportation

Before we saw any innovations when it came to transport, the distance that people could travel was very limited. This had an impact on trade, exploration, and knowledge of what lay beyond your immediate surroundings.

Thanks to technological advances, we are now able to travel globally. This means goods can be traded across continents, and we now have a thriving tourism industry. We can travel more quickly, and further than ever before. We can also transport more (and bigger/heavier) cargo loads.

This article will discuss the history of transportation from the early days of road track created by human feet as people trekked various routes, right through to modern air and space transport!

Land travel

The history of transportation begins with land travel and transport. When people wanted to get from A to B they would walk, and as more people walked the same route trails were established. This was simply due to the wearing down of the earth by peoples’ feet, and also by animal hooves when people started to use horses, camels, donkeys and so on to transport light cargo. Places with high-traffic density (more people walking that route) had more well-established tracks.

The history of transportation – roads

As trade increased, these tracks were purposely widened in order to allow for animals to get through. This was necessary as frames were invented to carry goods – such as the travois, a historical frame structure used by indigenous people like the Plains Aboriginals of North America, to drag loads over land. These gave way to carriages, carts and so on – early primitive forms of transport.

The ancient Romans were key players when it came to the formation of proper roads. This was due to the size of their empire and the wealth of trade they took part in. They built roads from around 300 BC, and these were much more established than the dust tracks that came before. Paved and strong, they were used by armies, civilians and traders. The Roman roads were expanded on throughout Europe and the rest of the world, and were used for public and leisure transport too.

Learn about the role that transport played in the history of tourism in this video!

The history of transportation – cars 

Roman roads saw a significant improvement when cars were invented. Cobblestones and wooden paving were no longer good enough, so hard topped roads were created using tarmac. Cars were invented in 1886, with the patent application of Carl Benz for the first “vehicle powered by a gas engine”. It wasn’t until 1908, however, when cars started becoming available to the general public – with the release of Ford’s Model T.

history of transportation

Cars are now obviously one of the most common forms of road/land transport. And then came buses – horses buses already existed, but now motor buses were becoming prominent. Steam buses and electric trolleys were around in the 1800s in some places, but motor buses as we know them came into play not long into the 1900s. We now have both buses and coaches, which are similar but with different roles. Buses are for short distance transport within/between towns and cities, whereas coaches allow for long-distance inter-city (and inter-country) transport.

The history of transportation – bikes

And we can’t forget bikes, one of the most cost-effective and eco-friendly forms of transportation. The bicycle was invented in 1817, and at first had no wheels! You can read a brief history of bicycles here! Modern motorcycles were then invented in the late 1800s by German engineers Hildebrand and Wolfmuller.

Sports tourism

Land transport is common – from cars to buses to bikes, there are plenty of ways to get around on land. This is before you even get into trucks, lorries and other forms of land transportation vehicles…

  • The first van was recorded in 1829
  • Trams were first invented in 1875
  • The first lorry (horse powered) was invented in 1876
  • Trucks were first invented in 1896
  • The first limousine was invented in 1902

There are so many types of vehicles and transportation used around the world! To go into all of them in this history of transportation would be impossible, but this article aims to provide an overview of the history at least.

Rail travel

Technically a type of land transport, rail travel is a vastly popular way of transporting both citizens and cargo. It is more eco-friendly than many other forms of land travel, and the history of transportation would be nothing without including rail travel…

You can read my articles about the advantages of rail transport and the different types of rail transport in order to gain an even better understanding of rail travel around the world.

Rail travel can be traced back around 500 years. At this time in the history of transportation, the rails were wooden and the systems powered by horse or man. In the 1760s cast iron rails were introduced, but they were replaced with wrought iron rails. In 1802, Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick both designed and built the first steam locomotive to run on smooth rails. He showed off his railway invention in the Welsh mining town of Merthyr Tydfil. A few years later, in 1807, we saw the first passenger-carrying public railway. It was opened by the Swansea and Mumbles Railway at Oyster mouth in 1807, using horse-drawn carriages on existing tramlines. 

UK heritage railways

Engineers started working to improve steam rail transport. The first modern rail transport systems appeared in England in the 1820s, so it didn’t take long! The first intercity railway (between Liverpool and Manchester) was built by George Stephenson in 1830. This was the first modern railroad.

Trains now can travel between towns, cities and countries. Journeys between London and Paris are frequent for example, but you would also travel between small towns or even just different suburbs by train.

The history of transportation – air travel

Air travel can be traced back thousands of years, in the most basic sense – tower jumping and kites, which cannot *really* be labelled as transport but equally cannot be ignored when it comes to the history of transportation.

However, the actual earliest human flight took place in 1783, in Paris. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes travelled 5 miles in a hot air balloon invented by the Montgolfier brothers. Some 20 years later, the famed Wright brothers made the first ‘sustained, controlled and powered heavier-than-air flight’.

history of transportation

Following on from this air travel revolution, planes and other forms of air transport were being invented and produced rapidly. WW2 sped up this effort even more so, and after this we saw a huge step up in terms of commercial aviation. You can read a more in-depth history of aviation here!

Now, air travel is used for tourism, the military and also the transportation of cargo over long distances. From budget Ryanair flights between European cities to large cargo planes travelling across continents, the invention of air travel changed the history of transportation massively.

The history of transportation – water travel

Water travel has a long history. Boats date back to the stone age, allowing for both navigation of, and fishing in, rivers. As civilisation grew, so did the boats – becoming bigger to allow for use in trade and war. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution in the 1760s onwards, we saw the invention of steam-powered boats and also diesel-powered ships; submarines were invented for the military, and specialised vessels were created for use on canals.

Boats, ships and other water vessels have played a huge part in world history, not just the history of transportation. Columbus, famed explorer, traveled by boat to discover America; the first transatlantic crossing was over water, rather than by air, and Antarctica was also discovered by water travel.

Cruise tourism

The history of transportation has seen huge changes when it comes to water travel. From fishing boats to cruise ships to car ferries, there are so many different types of ‘boat’. Port cities have long been sites of great importance, allowing for trade, and water travel is now used for all sorts of transportation. Small ferries allow for commuting, cruise ships are the perfect holiday, and naval ships support war and military efforts across the globe.

The history of transportation – space travel

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was the first to pioneer astronautic theory – the idea of flying into outer space. However, his work was not massively influential (or understood) outside of Russia. Space travel as an engineering possibility came in 1919, with the publication of A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes by Robert H. Goddard – an American. It is apt, then, that we later saw the space race unfold between Russia and America. Both countries wanted to be the first to achieve it, and later, to land on the moon.

Virtual tourism

It was the Soviet space program that achieved the first human space flight, in 1961 with their Vostok 1 mission. Kerim Kerimov, one of the lead architects of this mission, went out to launch the first space docks and space stations through the 20th century. Then, in 1969, NASA and their Apollo 11 mission achieved the first human spaceflight to the moon; Neil Amstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first astronauts to set foot on the planet. 

In much more recent space travel history, William Shatner has just become the oldest person to travel into space (aged 90) thanks to Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. Space tourism is now a real thing(!) and the company aims to make space travel realistic for more people, by developing reusable launch vehicles. This is a huge turning point in terms of the history of transportation!

Further reading

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Dr Hayley Stainton

Hi, I'm Dr Hayley Stainton

Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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