Moving in Time: Not Only Has Transportation and Its Development Furnished Much of the Content of History, It Has Also Helped to Determine How It Is Conceived, Says Justin Wintle

Article excerpt

Around 70,000 years ago, our ancestors began migrating out of Africa. Overrunning the Middle East, then the Indian subcontinent, they were established in China by 60,000 BC. Ten to fifteen thousand years later, they penetrated western Europe; later still, Siberia, the Americas, and Australasia, creating colonies on most of the planet's larger islands.

How fast they moved, and the means they adopted to get around, are shadowy. In the archaeological record, the first pack animals--domesticated mules and donkeys in Mesopotamia--only appear in about 15,000 BC. By then, humanity must have developed some seafaring skills.

Want of any firm evidence, however, suggests that, on land at least, for tens of millennia, people remained dependent on their primary biological mobility resource--their legs. The use of the horse, camel and other beasts of swift manoeuvre occurred only after the great civilisations of Egypt, India and China had incubated.

The onset of civilisation transformed beaten paths into highways, along which carts rumbled and chariots raced. In the maritime domain, boats and ships became more and more sophisticated, gaining planked hulls, sails and keels, rudders and, eventually engines.

Fittingly, the story of transportation has been one of acceleration. A millennium passed between the fall of Rome and Columbus's epoch-making voyages across the Atlantic. Yet within a century of Columbus's death, European seafarers were establishing trading colonies on the East Asian, as well as the American, littoral.

As the world's political face transformed, fresh innovations reinforced Europe's sense of destiny, even of racial superiority, for all that its maritime prowess would have been unthinkable without such earlier Chinese inventions as gunpowder and the magnetic compass. Thus, to give but one example, the use of copper plating on the hulls of both warships and merchantmen--the inspiration of Thomas Williams in the late 18th century--overcame the ravages of sea-worm, which, by eating into the wooden hulls of ships, restricted their working lives.

Yet the copper-bottomed vessel was but a prelude to far more dramatic breakthroughs. Land travel had remained essentially static for centuries, but the introduction of the steam engine, and then those powered by diesel and petrol, presaged the arrival of technological modernity. Again, these were essentially European inventions, underwriting Europe's imperial ambitions. But it befell two Americans, Wilbur and Orville Wright, to make the next great leap forward. With their first powered manned flight in 1903, humanity extended its supremacy to the sky.

Reflecting a decisive shift in geopolitics, the Wright brothers' achievement marks as great a watershed as any. Aircraft were deployed in the First World War, and the first commercial airlines opened in 1919. By the outbreak of the Second World War, three-and-a-half million passengers travelled by air annually, to a rapidly burgeoning number of destinations. And that was only the beginning. In the 1950s, civilian jet airliners came on line, and within another 20 years, the continents were linked by jumbo jets.

The Victorian view that steam had liberated mankind proved premature. The real liberation came through aeronautics. In the 20th century, as aircraft evolved, numbers, speed and affordability became the airlines' watchwords. Right up until the fateful events of 11 September 2001, passenger lists climbed as real costs fell year-on-year, with only a slight blip during the 'oil crisis' of the 1970s. And even now, the signs are that the aviation industry is resuming its expansionist ambitions.

Civilisation re-assessed

The reasons we take to the air are many. We may be pursuing business or career interests, we may be visiting friends and relatives, or we may be in search of some recreational sun or snow. But in addition to enabling such simple diversions, air travel has also led to a profound cultural transformation that has its origins, for Europeans anyway, in the Renaissance. …

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