Early transportation history

Transportation technology involves human-built systems that move people and cargo over and under the land, through the air, over and under water, and through space. It is one of the four main types of technology systems that greatly influence our lives. These systems consist of vehicles, pathways and support structures (buildings) which are used to service and maintain the systems. Common examples include personal transportation systems, public systems, private systems, government systems and systems which combine more than one. Understanding transportation technology systems as well as their positive and negative impacts enables us to make better choices for our own lives as well as for the collective good. After all, we are not alone out there when using transportation systems!

Whereas water transportation is just as ancient as land transport and developed simultaneously, there were places that water and therefore early water vehicles just could not travel. Land transportation was the only option. The history of land transportation is interesting, fundamental to transportation as a whole, and vital to human history. And because of America’s love affair with farming, trains and automobiles it is implicitly woven into our own country’s history.

The earliest form of land transportation simply involved people walking where they wanted to travel while carrying their goods in their arms. Of course, carrying any load like this for any distance becomes next to impossible, and if there is much weight, forget about it! Primitive woven fabrics were developed to make carrying devices and they could be dragged behind on the ground to relieve the burden.

Around the Mediterranean, approximately 7000 BC, humans began using sledges (or sleds) to transport goods. These devices had rails which slid over ground relatively easily and transferred the heavy load. Around 3000 BC the invention of the wheel and axle and machines such as carts and wheelbarrows drastically changed transportation technology. Built from just mechanical levers and wheels, they greatly reduce the amount of force and work needed to move heavy loads over long distance. For over 5,000 years now humans have transported loads large and small using carts and wheelbarrows, and they continue to be just as common today. The adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” may not apply any better than to these sturdy and reliable transportation machines.

As humans domesticated beasts of burden and trained draft animals such as oxen, mules, horses, camels and elephants, heavier loads could be transported and farther distances crossed. With a yoke attached around the necks of strong ox or mules, wheeled vehicles combined with suspension system technology allowed humans to move themselves and their goods great distances.

As early as 300 BC, dirt pathways were converted into paved roads by the young and growing Roman Empire and around 450 BC specific rules were developed to standardize three types of roadways and their construction. Much remained the same in Europe, and throughout the rest of the world, as land transportation technology only slowly developed for hundreds of years – there just wasn’t that much advancement to land-based technology, although great change happened in water transport to sailing ships. Although steam engines as a novelty were invented during the first century AD, it was not until the development of useful steam engines in Europe during the late 1600s that land transportation began to drastically change.

In the ancient pre-Columbian Americas, development occurred in a similar but fundamentally different fashion because the use of the wheel and axle was not known. Whereas paved roadways and extensive trail systems were created, there were not wheeled vehicles as in the Middle East. The Inca Empire built the most advanced road system in South America – estimated to be 25,000 miles in total length. The network contained paved roads, bridges, stairways and support structures such as earth retaining walls.

Here in the ancient Midwestern United States and in Illinois, migrating herds of bison created major pathways through the thick prairies, and deer did the same in the forests. Native Americans followed these paths, creating trails needed to move to better weather and sources of food and shelter. These trails also led to and from their villages and the numerous large population centers throughout the state and our Midwest neighbors. Sprawling trades routes created a network of pathways that relied primarily on water routes but also depended on land ways to reach landlocked destinations.

As time moved relentlessly forward, these primitive pathways systems became routes for European missionaries and explorers, who established new and different population centers and the need for more advanced vehicle technology. Horse and ox-drawn vehicles began to permeate the Midwest as more settlers moved west away from the crowded cities and civilization on the east coast. Trails began to take on common names of identification so explorers and settlers could communicate about the pathways used. Peoria, St. Louis, Galena, Rock Island, Kankakee, Joliet, Rockford, Danville, Centralia and many others were all connected by some means of transportation typically involving land travel along the way. Major water routes were also connected. The “Portage Path” was originally a Native American trail that connected the Chicago and Illinois rivers, ultimately connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It was via this pathway that the historical French missionaries, explorers and fur traders Pere Marquette, Louise Joliet, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (wow, what a name!), and others “discovered” Illinois for future European settlers. Imagine the scene as these first Europeans came into these lands previously inhabited only by Native American tribes of the Midwest. It is all important to understand, and to realize how transportation technology can influence our lives!

Stay tuned for more transportation history! Hopefully you find it as fascinating as I. We need to move into the age of the stagecoach next! Thanks for reading.

Kurt Wolter has studied and taught technology - including production, transportation, energy, and communication - for over 30 years. He enjoys trying to better understand technology and its past, present, and future while also attempting journalism. He can be reached at [email protected]


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