Transportation History


transportation, conveyance of goods and people over land, across water, and through the air. See also commerce.

Transportation over Land

Land transportation first began with the carrying of goods by people. The ancient civilizations of Central America, Mexico, and Peru transported materials in that fashion over long roads and bridges. Primitive peoples used a sledge made from a forked tree with crosspieces of wood. The Native Americans of the Great Plains made a travois consisting of two poles each fastened at one end to the sides of a dog or a horse, the other end dragging on the ground; the back parts of the two poles were attached by a platform or net, upon which goods were loaded.

The first road vehicles were two-wheeled carts, with crude disks fashioned from stone serving as the wheels. Used by the Sumerians (c.3000 BC), such simple wagons were precursors of the chariot, which the Egyptians and Greeks, among others, developed from a lumbering cart into a work of beauty. Under the Chou dynasty (c.1000 BC), the Chinese constructed the world's first permanent road system. In Asia the camel caravan served to transport goods and people; elsewhere the ox and the ass were the beasts of burden. The Romans built 53,000 mi (85,000 km) of roads, primarily for military reasons, throughout their vast empire; the most famous of these was the Appian Way, begun in 325 BC

Four-wheeled carriages were developed toward the end of the 12th cent.; they transported only the privileged until the late 18th cent., when Paris licensed omnibuses, and stagecoaches began to operate in England. In the United States the demands of an ever-extending frontier led to the creation of the Conestoga wagon and the prairie schooner, so that goods and families could be transported across the eastern mountains, the Great Plains, and westward.

The great period of railroad building in the second half of the 19th cent. made earlier methods of transportation largely obsolete within the United States. Where just a self-sufficient settlement might have been established before, a metropolis would come into existence, with isolated farms tributary to it. After World War I, however, automobiles, buses, and trucks came to exceed the railroads in importance.

Transportation across Water

Little is known of the origins of water transportation. As long ago as 3000 BC the Egyptians were already employing large cargo boats. The first great system of transportation by sailing vessels, that of the Phoenicians, connected the caravan routes with seaports, chiefly those in the Mediterranean area. Goods of high value and little bulk, such as gems, spices, perfumes, and fine handiwork, made up the cargoes; to King Solomon came "ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks" (2 Chron. 9.21). As metropolitan centers developed, the transportation of grain became important. In addition to the network of paved roads they built throughout their vast empire, the Romans made much use of ships.

In the late Middle Ages, leadership in transportation by sea passed to Spain and Portugal. Maritime transportation between Europe and North America in the Age of Discovery began the English dominance of the seas that lasted until World War I. The forests of New England encouraged the building of wooden sailing vessels, and American schooners and clippers came to carry a large share of the world's shipping, until they were supplanted by steel-hulled steamships in the late 19th cent. Diesel power soon replaced steam, and in the mid-20th cent. the first nuclear powered vessels were launched. Inland water transportation grew with the extensive canal construction of the 16th and 17th cent.

Transportation through the Air

The first practical attempts at air transportation began with the invention of the hot-air balloon in 1783. However, transportation by air didn't become a reality until the beginning of the 20th cent. with the invention of the rigid airship (or Zeppelin) in 1900 and the first heavier-than-air flight by the Wright brothers in 1903. Although passenger flights were inaugurated after World War I, air transportation did not blossom until after World War II. The modern jet airplane now makes possible comfortable travel to virtually any point on the globe in just one day.

See airship; aviation.


See J. R. Rose, American Wartime Transportation (1955); C. I. Savage, An Economic History of Transportation (1962, repr. 1966); W. Owen, Wheels (1967); T. De la Barra, Integrated Land Use and Transport Modeling (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Transportation History: Selected full-text books and articles

The Automobile Revolution: The Impact of an Industry By Jean-Pierre Bardou; Jean-Jacques Chanaron; Patrick Fridenson; James M. Laux University of North Carolina Press, 1982
The Motorization of American Cities By David J. St. Clair Praeger, 1986
The Long Haul West: The Great Canal Era, 1817-1850 By Madeline Sadler Waggoner G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1958
Stagecoach West By Ralph Moody University of Nebraska Press, 1998
Farmcarts to Fords: A History of the Military Ambulance, 1790-1925 By John S. Haller Jr Southern Illinois University Press, 1992
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.