The History of Transportation

Airplane taking off over ocean
Airplane taking off over ocean. Lester Lefkowitz/Getty Images

The early years: boats, horses and wagons

Whether on land or at sea, humans early on successfully sought to go forth more efficiently by taking advantage of transport systems mother nature already had in place. The earliest examples of such resourcefulness are boats. Those who colonized Australia roughly 60,000 to 40,000 years ago have been credited as the first people to cross the sea, though there is some evidence that early man carried out seafaring trips as far back as 900,000 years ago.

In any case, the earliest known boats were simple logboats, also referred to as dugouts. Evidence for these floating vehicles come from excavations of artifacts that date back to around 7,000 to 10,000 years ago. The Pesse canoe is the oldest boat unearthed and dates as far back as 7600 BC. Rafts have been around nearly as long, with artifacts showing them in use for at least 8,000 years.    

Next, came horses. While it’s difficult to pinpoint when humans first began domesticating them as a means of getting around or to transport goods, experts generally go by the emergence of certain biological and cultural markers that indicate when such practices started to take place.

Based on changes in teeth records, butchering activities, shifts in settlement patterns, historic depictions and many other factors, experts believe that domestication took place around 4000 BC.

Roughly around that period, someone invented the wheel -- finally.

The archaeological record shows that the first wheeled vehicles were in use around 3500 BC, with evidence of the existence of such contraptions found in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucuses and Central Europe. The earliest well-dated artifact from that time period is the Bronocice pot, a ceramic vase that depicts a four-wheeled wagon that featured two axles.

It was unearthed in southern Poland.

Steam machines: steamboats, automobiles and locomotives

The Watt steam engine, invented in 1769, changed everything. And boats were among the first to take advantage of steam-generated power. In 1783, a French inventor by the name of Claude de Jouffroy built the Pyroscaphe, the world’s the first steamship. But despite successfully making trips up and down the river and carried passengers as part of a demonstration, there wasn’t enough interest to fund further development.

While other inventors tried to make steamships that were practical enough for mass transport, it was American Robert Fulton who furthered the technology to where it was commercially viable. In 1807, the Clermont completed a 150-mile trip from New York City to Albany that took 32 hours, with the average speed clocking in at about five miles per hour. Within a few years, Fulton and company would offer regular and freight service between New Orleans, Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi.

In 1769, another Frenchman named Nicolas Joseph Cugnot attempted to adapt a steam engine technology to a road vehicle and the result was the invention of the first automobile. The heavy engine added so much weight to the vehicle that it was ultimately too impractical for something that had a top speed of two and ½ miles an hour.

Another effort to repurpose the steam engine for a different means of personal transport resulted in the Roper steam Velocipede. Developed in 1867, the two-wheeled steam-powered bicycle is considered by many historians to be the world’s first motorcycle

It wasn’t until 1858 that Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir of Belgium invented the internal combustion engine. And even though his subsequent invention, the first gasoline-powered automobile, technically did work, credit for the first “practical” gasoline-powered car goes to Karl Benz for the patent he filed in 1886. Still, up until the 20th century, cars were not a widely adopted means of transport.

One mode of land transport powered by a steam engine that did go mainstream is the locomotive. In 1801, British inventor Richard Trevithick unveiled the world’s first road locomotive, called the “Puffing Devil,” and used it to six passengers a ride lift to a nearby village.

It was in 1804 though that Trevithick’s demonstrated for the first time a locomotive that ran on rails when another one he built hauled 10 tons of iron to the community of Penydarren in Wales to a small village called Abercynon.

But it took another fellow Brit, a civil and mechanical engineer named George Stephenson, to turn locomotives into a form of mass transport. In 1812, Matthew Murray of Holbeck had designed and built the first commercially successful steam locomotive “The Salamanca” and Stephenson wanted to take the technology a step further. So in 1814, Stephenson designed the Blücher, an eight wagon locomotive capable of hauling 30 tons of coal uphill at a speed of four miles per hour.

By 1824, Stephenson improved the efficiency on his locomotive designs to where he commissioned by the Stockton and Darlington Railway to build the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line, the aptly named Locomotion No. 1. Six years later, he opened the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first public inter-city railway line serviced by steam locomotives. His notable accomplishments also include establishing the standard for rail spacing for most of the railways in use today. No wonder he’s been hailed as "Father of Railways."

Modern Machines: submarines, aircraft and spacecraft

Technically speaking, the first navigable submarine was invented in 1620 by Dutchman Cornelis Drebbel. Built for the English Royal Navy, Drebbel’s submarine could stay submerged for up to three hours and was propelled by oars. However, the submarine was never used in combat and it wasn’t until toward the turn of the 20th century that designs that led to practical and widely-used submersible vehicles were realized.

Along the way, there were important milestones such as the launching of the hand-powered, egg-shaped Turtle in 1776, the first military submarine used in combat as well as the launching of the French Navy submarine Plongeur, the first mechanically powered submarine.

Finally, in 1888, the Spanish navy launched the Peral submarine, the first electric battery-powered submarine, which also so happened to be the first fully capable military submarine.

Built by Spanish engineer and sailor named Isaac Peral, it was equipped with a torpedo tube, two torpedoes, an air regeneration system, the first fully reliable underwater navigation system and posted an underwater speed of 3.5 mph.

The start of the twentieth century was truly the dawn of a new era as two American brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, pulled off the first official powered flight in 1903. In essence, they had invented the world’s first airplane. Transport via aircraft took off from there with airplanes being put into service within a few short years during World War I. In 1919, British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown completed the first transatlantic flight, crossing from Canada to Ireland. The same year, passengers were able to fly internationally for the first time.

Around the same time that the Wright brothers were taking flight, French inventor Paul Cornu started developing a rotorcraft. And on November 13, 1907, his Cornu helicopter, made of little more than some tubing, an engine and rotary wings, achieved a lift height of about one foot while staying airborne for about 20 seconds. With that, Cornu would lay claim to having piloted the first helicopter flight.

It didn’t take long after air travel took off for humans to start seriously considering the possibility of going further up and toward the heavens. The Soviet Union surprised much of the western world in 1957 with its successful launch of sputnik, the first satellite to reach outer space. Four years later, the Russians followed that up by sending the first human, pilot Yuri Gagaran, into outer space aboard the Vostok 1.

The achievements would spark a “space race” between the Soviet Union and the United States that culminated in the Americans taking what’s perhaps the biggest victory lap among national rivals. On July 20, 1969, the Lunar module of the Apollo spacecraft, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, touched down on the surface of the moon.

The event, which was broadcast on live TV to the rest of the world, allowed millions to witness the moment Armstrong became the first man to ever step foot on the moon, a moment he heralded as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”