Communication, transportation and energy – The Pony Express

Kurt Wolter
Posted 6/11/24

Communication technology is among the four main branches of technology including energy, production and transportation. Communication technology is humans using tools, machines, knowledge and resources to control the environment by sending and receiving messages.

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Communication, transportation and energy – The Pony Express


Communication technology is among the four main branches of technology including energy, production and transportation. Communication technology is humans using tools, machines, knowledge and resources to control the environment by sending and receiving messages.

We are furiously dependent on messages today and therefore also on communication technology, as we have been for thousands of years. Not only do they help us share our human emotions to feel more connected with one another, they are necessary for survival to procure the goods and services we must have for a successful life on earth among the rest of the population and our environment. Information and ideas are shared among people to achieve success. And being able to communicate messages is a very valuable skill and can be used to enable success.

Interestingly, communication technology is like transportation technology because both are designed with the purpose of “moving” something or some message to another person, machine, or location. In communication this movement is referred to as “transmitting”, and in transportation it’s referred to as “transporting”. Cell phone towers transmit phone conversations, while automobiles transport people.

Whereas transportation technology satisfies human needs and wants by physically moving artifacts from one place to another, communication technology’s goal is moving a message between people, between people and machines, or between machines. It is not necessarily involved with physical distance but most often is.

Certain acts of communication and transportation are very closely related because the message transmission is dependent on its transportation. For example, a greeting card or personal letter mailed via the US Postal service is a form of communication technology, while all the containers, machines and vehicles which move that letter are transportation technology. In other examples, communication and transportation are barely related. For instance, driving a car across the country and back again to visit a friend, compared with making a cell phone call to that same person. Here the communication and transportation to and from the location of the friend are just remotely similar.

In that example, rather than relying on transportation to transmit the message, the transmission relies on energy technology. Since messages may be encoded using energy, the speed of transmitting the messages is based on the energy’s transmission speed.

Great historical developments occurred which now showcase the relationship between communication, transportation, and energy technology. The story of the Pony Express is one of these.

In 1848, when gold was discovered in California, more people looking to buy cheap land and those looking to make an easy fortune began to move west. Since communication about the gold bonanza was in high demand, the U.S. Post Office granted a contract to a steamship company to deliver mail from New York to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. (Remember the connection between communication and transportation!). However, it took at least 3-4 weeks for a message to be delivered… one way!

As time went on and more people moved west, demand for faster message delivery increased. The telegraph, which used electricity transmitted along wires strung high above the ground on poles, was under construction but still not a complete path. Can you imagine the undertaking of constructing telegraph poles and wires across all the western states? It took a very long time! So, another temporary method which could beat steamship delivery was needed.

Stagecoaches were used to deliver mail when there were also people willing to endure the ride on horse-drawn wagons, and there was both a northern and southern stagecoach route across the West. But the fastest route between Missouri and California was over land without established stagecoach routes. This is where in 1860 the Pony Express established itself along a new, “Central Route” from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco.

The Pony Express relied on approximately 80 men, 400 light weight and speedy horses, and 200 stations placed 10 miles apart. The riders carried the mail in bags designed for quick transfer for 30 miles, day and night, in good weather and in poor, as fast as the horses could go. It was nearly a 2,000-mile trip over the plains, deserts, plateaus, river valleys and mountains of the western states along the Central Route. Only the very last portion of the trip – from Sacramento to San Francisco was carried by steamship.

The astounding achievement of the Pony Express was to reduce the mail delivery time to just 10 days! The cost of mail delivery at first was $5 per letter – very expensive for the time – but that was reduced to $1.

Of course, when the telegraph was completed and messages could now be sent at the speed of electricity, the Pony Express became obsolete. A good example of how the relationship between communication, transportation and energy can significantly shape the world we live in.

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