Zooming down the highway at 80 mph or through the sky at over 500, it is easy to take the miracles of modern transportation for granted. However, for most of history, the majority of people never went beyond the borders of their own town or village. This was due to the simple fact that transportation was slow, dangerous and not particularly efficient.
Animals, wheels and boats
In the beginning, transportation was carried out by human effort alone. The ancient Egyptians lacked even the wheel to transport construction materials, making the incredible pyramids they build all the more amazing. By the time of the ancient Greeks, however, large and efficient sailing vessels as well as wheeled vehicles drawn by horses and oxen had become widespread.
Unknown to many, the Romans actually had an exquisitely refined system of transportation. The system of Roman roads was as good as anything that was built right up to the 20th century. A roman patrician could travel from his home city to the outer reaches of the Empire with nearly the same comfort and efficiency as a 19th century American. However, most of the knowledge and infrastructure that gave rise to the marvelous Roman transport system was lost for thousands of years in the Dark Ages.
By the year 1,000, the Chinese had developed a long system of internal roads. They also had the mightiest navy in the world, with one of the famous leader Zheng He’s ships measuring nearly 450 feet in length, about the size of a modern destroyer.
The 19th century saw the invention of the steam engine and its application to railroads. The first practical and modern steam locomotive, the John Bull, was invented in England and soon went into service, spawning an industry that would reshape the world. By the 1850s, steam-powered farm equipment was being mass produced in the United States, and some of these vehicles were adopted for road transport. But it was the invention of the internal combustion engine and the electric motor in the late 1800s that gave rise to truly modern transport. Within just 20 years of the first practical gasoline-powered automobiles coming on the scene, the gasoline engine was adapted to power airplanes. The last major step in the evolution of modern transport occurred in the 1950s, when the jet engine was coupled to massive airliners, ushering in the era of cheap and easy intercontinental travel.