The Emergence of Mechanized Transportation Systems

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

1. Transportation in the Pre-Industrial Era (pre 1800s)

Transportation is closely linked with the process of globalization. Efficiently distributing freight and moving people has always been an important factor for maintaining the cohesion of economic systems from empires to modern nation states and economic blocs. With technological and economic developments, the means to achieve such a goal have evolved considerably with a series of historical revolutions and evolution. It became possible to move people and cargoes faster, in greater volumes, over longer distances and more conveniently. This process is very complex and is related to the spatial evolution of economic systems and associated technical developments. It is possible to summarize this evolution, from the pre-industrial era to transportation in the early 21st century, in four major stages, each linked with specific technological innovations in the transport sector; the pre-industrial era, the industrial revolution, fordism and post-fordism (globalization).

Before the major technical transformations brought forward by the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century, no forms of motorized transportation existed. Transport technology was mainly limited to harnessing animal labor for land transport and to wind for maritime transport. Initially, ships were propelled by rowers and sails were added around 2,500 BCE as a complementary form of propulsion. The transported quantities were very limited and so was the speed at which people and freight were moving. The average overland speed by horse, which was domesticated around 2,000 BCE, was around 8 kilometers per hour and maritime speeds were barely above these figures. Also, a horse can only carry a load of about 125 kg while a camel can carry about 200 kg. Waterways were the most efficient transport systems available and cities next to rivers were able to trade over longer distances and maintain political, economic and cultural cohesion over a larger territory. It is not surprising to find that the first civilizations emerged along river systems for agricultural but also for trading purposes (Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, Ganges, Huang He). International trade did exist, but traded commodities were high-value (luxury) goods such as spices, silk, wine and perfume, notably along the Silk Road. Around the Mediterranean, the amphora permitted a form of intermodalism as an effective standard transport product of olive oil, grain or wine.

Because the efficiency of the land transport system of this era was poor, the overwhelming majority of trade was local in scope. Economies based on autonomy and basic subsistence could not generate much trade. Cities were located to take advantage of the defensible or commercial advantage of a location. From the perspective of regional economic organization, the provision of cities in perishable agricultural commodities was limited to a radius of about 50 kilometers, at most. The size of cities also remained unchanged in time. Since people can walk about 5 km per hour and that they are not willing to spend more than one hour per day walking, the daily space of interaction would be constrained by a 2.5 km radius, or about 20 square kilometers. Thus, most rural areas centered around a village and cities rarely exceeded a 5 km diameter. The largest cities prior to the industrial revolution, such as Rome, Beijing, Constantinople, or Venice never surpassed an area of 20 square kilometers. Large cities above 100,000 were very rare and those who exceed such a population did so because they were at the nexus of maritime and land trade networks.

Prior to the industrial revolution, it was difficult to speak of an urban system, but rather of a set of relatively self-sufficient economic systems with very limited trade. The preponderance of city-states during this period can be explained by transportation, in particular the difficulties of shipping goods (therefore to trade) from one place to another. Among the most notable exceptions to this were the Roman and Chinese empires, which committed extraordinary efforts at building transportation networks and consequently maintained control over an extensive territory for a long time period.

  • The Roman Empire grew around an intricate network of coastal shipping and roads, which supported a set of large cities around the Mediterranean basin. It also traded with India and China.
  • The Chinese Empire established an important fluvial transport network with several artificial canals connected to form what has been dubbed as the Grand Canal. Some parts of it are still being used today.

The economic importance and the geopolitics of transportation were recognized very early, notably for maritime transportation since before the industrial revolution, it was the most convenient way to move freight and passengers around. Great commercial empires were established with maritime transportation. However, long distance maritime trade involved risk, which favored the setting of a financing and insurance industry. In Ancient Greece, merchants financed their commercial ventures through high interest loans that acted at the same time as insurance since the loan would not be repaid if the ship sank. This model, known as “bottomry”, was then copied by the Romans. It takes its origins in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi around 1700 BCE stating repayment of a loan in case of a successful voyage. These early forms of financing and insurance permitted commercial activities that would not have taken place to the same extent otherwise.

By Medieval times, an extensive maritime trade network, the highways of the time, centered along the navigable rivers, canals, and coastal waters of Europe (and also China) was established. Shipping was using the English Channel, the North Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean where the most important cities were coastal or inland ports (London, Norwich, Königsberg, Hamburg, Bruges, Bordeaux, Lyon, Lisbon, Barcelona, and Venice). Trade of bulk goods, such as grain, salt, wine, wool, timber and stone was taking place. By the 14th century galleys were finally replaced by full fledged sailships (the caravel and then the galleon) that were faster and required smaller crews. 1431 marked the beginning of the European expansion with the discovery by the Portuguese of the North Atlantic circular wind pattern, better known as the trade winds. A similar pattern was also found on the Indian and Pacific oceans with the monsoon winds.

The fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantium Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), to the Turks in 1453 disrupted the traditional land trade route from Europe to Asia. Emerging European powers were forced to find alternative maritime routes. One alternative, followed by Columbus in 1492, was to sail to the west and the other alternative, followed by Vasco de Gama in 1497, was to sail to the East. Columbus stumbled upon the American continent, while Gama found a maritime route to India using the Cape of Good Hope. These events and the new trade routes they promised were quickly followed by a wave of European exploration and colonization, initially by Spain and Portugal, the early maritime powers, then by Britain, France and the Netherlands. The traditional trade route to Asia no longer involved Italy (Venice) and Arabia, but involved direct maritime connections from ports such as Lisbon and Amsterdam. European powers were able to master the seas with larger, better armed and more efficient sailing ships and thus were able to control international trade and colonization. Private charter companies, such as the Dutch East India Company, were agents initially used to establish maritime trading networks that spanned the world. By the early 18th century, most of the world’s territories were controlled by Europe, providing wealth and markets to their thriving metropolises through a system of colonial trade.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the quantity of freight transported between nations was negligible by contemporary standards. For instance, during the Middle Ages, the totality of French imports via the Saint-Gothard Passage (between Italy and Switzerland) would not fill a freight train. The amount of freight transported by the Venetian fleet, which dominated Mediterranean trade for centuries, would not fill a modern container ship. The volume, but not the speed of trade improved under mercantilism (15th to 18th century), notably for maritime transportation. In spite of all, distribution capacities were very limited and speeds slow. For example, a stage coach going through the English countryside in the 16th century had an average speed of two miles per hour; moving one ton of cargo 30 miles (50 km) inland in the United States by the late 18th century was as costly as moving it across the Atlantic. The inland transportation system was thus very limited, both for passengers and freight. By the late 18th century, canal systems started to emerge in Europe, initially in the Netherlands and England. They permitted the beginning of large movements of bulk freight inland and expanded regional trade. Maritime and fluvial transportation were consequently the dominant modes of the pre-industrial era.

2. The Industrial Revolution and Transportation (1800-1870)

From the 1750s, a series of changes took place in Europe that would transform the global economic, political, social and technological landscape. This came to be known as the industrial revolution. The factors that have led to the remarkable changes brought by the industrial revolution are subject to debate in terms of their role and importance in the emergence of capitalism. Four of them appear to be prevalent and interdependent:

  • The scientific method. Mostly the outcome of changes that took place in the 17th century, often dubbed the “Age of Reason”, it triggered a rational approach to the laws of nature and formalized technical professions (physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.). This in turn fostered innovation and the application of these innovations.
  • Property rights. The strengthening of democratic institutions leaning on the rule of law that guarantees and protect private ownership. Property owners had a greater representation in elected legislatures and capital accumulation could expand.
  • Capital markets. Institutions such as banks able to gather capital pools and invest them in economic ventures. The process of capital accumulation and allocation became increasingly rational and institutionalized.
  • Communications and transport infrastructure. The setting and development of mechanized transport systems supporting the distribution of resources and the setting of comparative advantages. Markets could interact more effectively.

At the scale of the world’s economic history, the industrial revolution radically changed the foundations of economic systems and set in motion the emergence of the global of the economy. Most of the technical innovations that modified the way to produce and to transport took place on a short period, mainly between 1760 and 1800. It was during the industrial revolution that massive modifications of transport systems occurred in two major phases, the first centered along the development of canal systems and the second centered along railways. This period marked the development of the steam engine, an external combustion engine that converted thermal energy into mechanical energy, providing an important territorial expansion for maritime and railway transport systems. Much of the credit of developing the first efficient steam engine in 1765 is attributed to the British engineer Watt, although the first steam engines were used to pump water out of mines. It was then only a matter of time to see the adaptation of the steam engine to locomotion. In 1769, the French engineer Cugnot built the first self-propelled steam vehicle, along with being responsible for the first automobile accident ever recorded. The first mechanically propelled maritime vehicle was tested in 1790 by the American Inventor Fitch as a mode of fluvial transportation on the Delaware River. By 1807, commercial steam boat services were inaugurated. This marked a new era in the mechanization of land and maritime transport systems alike.

From the perspective of land transportation, the early industrial revolution faced bottleneck problems, as inland distribution was unable to carry the growing quantities of raw materials and finished goods. Roads were commonly unpaved and could not be used to effectively carry heavy loads. Although improvements were made on road transport systems in the early 17th century, such as the Turnpike Trusts in Britain (1706) and the development of stagecoaches, this was not sufficient to accommodate the growing demands on freight transportation. The first coach services had speeds of about 5.5 miles per hour in the 1750s. By the 1820s turnpikes greatly improved overland transportation but roads were not profitable if used to haul anything except compact and valuable goods. In a horse drawn era, road economics were clearly disadvantageous. Bulk products could be transported for about 100 miles, but in a slow, costly and inefficient manner. For instance, four horses could pull a wagon weight of one ton 12 miles a day over an ordinary road and one-and-a-half tons 18 miles a day over a well maintained turnpike. Comparatively, four horses could draw a barge of 100 tons 24 miles a day on a canal.

From the 1760s a set of freight shipping canals were slowly built in emerging industrial cores such as England (e.g. Bridgewater Canal, 1761) and the United States (e.g. Erie Canal, 1825). These projects relied on a system of locks to overcome changes in elevation, and thus linking different segments of fluvial systems into a comprehensive waterway system. Barges, many pulled by horses, became increasingly used to move goods at a scale and a cost that were not previously possible. Economies of scale and specialization, the foundation of modern industrial production systems, became increasingly applicable through fluvial canals. Physical obstacles made canal construction expensive, however, and the network was constrained in its geographical coverage. In 1830 there were about 2,000 miles of canals in Britain and by 1850, there were 4,250 miles of navigable waterways. The canal era was however short-lived as a new mode would revolutionize and transform inland transportation emerged in the second half of the 19th century.

Steam railway technology initially appeared in 1814 to haul coal. It was found that using a steam engine on smooth rails required less power and could handle heavier loads. The first commercial rail line linked Manchester to Liverpool in 1830 over a distance of 65 km. Shortly after rail lines began to be laid throughout developed countries, leading to the setting of national systems. Speed improvements were significant as the first rail networks ran between 30 and 50 km/h, three times faster than stagecoach services. The capital costs to build railway networks were enormous and often left to the private sector but with significant public involvements in terms of loans and land grants. They included rights of way, building, maintenance and operating costs. This was accompanied by a few railway manias (and their subsequent busts) with capital pouring in a sector that was perceived, at least by the general public, as limitless in possibilities. By the 1850s, railroad towns were being established and the railways were giving access to resources and markets of vast territories. 10,000 km of railways were then operating in England and railways were quickly being constructed in Western Europe and North America. The need to organize and schedule rail services incited the adoption of standard time (often labeled standard railroad time). England was the first to implement a standard time system in 1855, the Greenwich Mean Time, which became the global reference time.

Railroads represented an inland transport system that was at the same time flexible in its spatial coverage and that could carry heavy loads. As a result, many canals fell into disrepair and were closed as they were no longer able to compete with rail services. In their initial phase of development, railways were a point to point process where major cities were linked one at a time by independent companies. Thus, the first railroad companies bore the name of the city pairs or the region they were servicing (e.g. the Camden and Amboy Railroad Company chartered in 1830). From the 1860s, integrated railway systems started to cohesively service whole nations with standard gauges (made mandatory in the United States by the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887) and passenger and freight services. The journey between New York and Chicago was reduced from three weeks by stage coach in 1830 to 72 hours by train in 1850. Many cities thus became closely interconnected, further favoring economic specialization and comparative advantages. The transcontinental line between New York and San Francisco, completed in 1869, represented a remarkable achievement in territorial integration made only possible by rail. It reduced the journey across the continent (New York to San Francisco) from six months to one week, thus opening for the Eastern part of the United States a vast pool of resources and new agricultural regions. This was followed by Canada in 1886 (trans-Canada railway) and Russia in 1904 (trans-Siberian railway).

In terms of international transportation, the beginning of the 19th century saw the establishment of the first regular maritime routes linking harbors worldwide, especially over the North Atlantic between Europe and North America. Many of these long distance routes were navigated by fast Clipper ships, which dominated ocean trade until the late 1850s. Another significant improvement resided in the elaboration of accurate navigation charts where prevailing winds and sea currents could be used to the advantage of navigation. Composite ships (mixture of wood and iron armature) then took over a large portion of the trade until about 1900, but they could not compete with steamships which have been continually improved since they were first introduced a hundred years before.

Regarding steamship technology, 1807 marks the first successful use of a steamship, Fulton’s North River / Clermont, on the Hudson servicing New York and Albany. In 1820, the Savannah was the first steamship (used as auxiliary power) to cross the Atlantic, taking 29 days to link Liverpool to New York. The first regular services for transatlantic passengers transport by steamships was inaugurated in 1838, followed-up closely by the usage of the helix, instead of the paddle wheel as a more efficient propeller (1840). The gradual improvement of steam engine technology slowly but surely permitted longer and safer voyages, enabling steamships to become the dominant mode of maritime transportation by the late 19th century. Shipbuilding was also revolutionized by the usage of steel armatures (1860), enabling to escape the structural constraints of wood and iron armatures in terms of ship size. Iron armature ships were 30 to 40% lighter and had 15% more cargo capacity compared with wood armature ship of the same size.

The main consequence of the industrial revolution was a specialization of transportation services and the establishment of large distribution networks of raw materials and energy.

3. Emergence of Modern Transportation Systems (1870-1920)

By the end of the 19th century, international transportation undertook a new growth phase, especially with improvements in engine propulsion technology of the steamship and a gradual shift from coal to oil in the 1870s. Although oil has been known for centuries for its combustion properties, its commercial use was only applied in the early 19th century. Inventors started experimenting with engines that could use the cheap and abundant fuel. Oil increased the speed and the capacity of maritime transport. It also permitted to reduce the energy consumption of ships by a factor of 90% relatively to coal, the main source of energy for steam engines prior to this innovation. An equal size oil-powered ship could transport more freight than a coal-powered ship, reducing operation costs considerably and extending range. Also, coal refueling stages along trade routes could be bypassed. Global maritime circulation was also dramatically improved when the construction of transoceanic canals reduced intercontinental distances, such as the Suez (1869) and the Panama (1914) canals. With the Suez Canal, the far reaches of Asia and Australia became more accessible from Europe.

The increasing size of ships, the outcome of advances in shipbuilding, imposed massive investments in port infrastructures such as piers and docks to accommodate them. Ship size grew dramatically, from the largest tonnage of 3,800 gross registered tons (revenue making cargo space) in 1871 to 47,000 tons in 1914. Accordingly, ocean freight rates dropped by a factor of 70% between 1840 and 1910. The commercial demise of the sailship took place during that period as trade shifted to the steamship and expanded substantially. While sailships accounted for 85% of the total maritime tonnage in 1870, this share plummeted to 14% in 1910. 1878 appears to have been the last year where the sail ship could compete effectively with the steamship for the China trade. The harbor, while integrating production and transshipping activities, became an industrial complex around which agglomerated activities using ponderous raw materials. From the 1880s, liner services linked major ports of the world, supporting the first regular international passenger transport services, until the 1950s when air transportation became the dominant long distance mode.

This period also marked the golden era of the development of railway transport systems as railway networks expanded tremendously and became the dominant land transport mode both for passengers and freight. As the speed and power of locomotives improved above 100 km/h and as the market expanded, rail services became increasingly specialized with trains entirely devoted to passengers or freight. Japan, the first Asian country to undertake its industrial revolution, saw its first train service introduced in 1872. Rail systems reached a phase of maturity by the early 20th century as in most developed economies the rail network reached its maximum extent in terms of total length.

Many European countries were undergoing a demographic transition, implying a rapid growth of their population with related urbanization and migration pressures. In such a context a significant technological change of this era involved urban transportation, which until then solely relied on walking and different types of carriages (mainly horse drawn). The fast growth of the urban population favored the construction of the first public urban transport systems. Electric energy became widely used in the 1880s and considerably changed urban transport systems with the introduction of tramways (streetcars), notably in Western Europe and in the United States. They enabled the first forms of urban sprawl and the specialization of economic functions through a wider separation between the place of work and residence. In large agglomerations, underground metro systems began to be constructed, London being the first in 1863. The bicycle, first shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867, was also an important innovation which changed commuting in the late 19th century. Initially, the rich used it as a form of leisure, but it was rapidly adopted by the working class as a mode of transportation for commuting. Today, the bicycle is much less used in developed countries (outside recreational purposes), but it is still a major mode of transportation in developing countries, especially China.

This era also marked the first significant developments in telecommunications. The telegraph is considered to be the first efficient telecommunication device gaining wide market coverage. It enabled the first instantaneous transmission of information over vast distances. In 1844, Samuel Morse built the first experimental telegraph line in the United States between Washington and Baltimore, opening a new era in the transmission of information. By 1852, more than 40,000 km of telegraph lines were in service in the United States. In 1866, the first successful transatlantic telegraph line marked the inauguration of an intercontinental telegraphic network that was was later dubbed as the “Victorian Internet”. The growth of telecommunications is thus closely associated with the growth of railways and international shipping. Managing a rail transport system, especially at the continental level became more efficient with telegraphic communication. In fact, continental rail and telegraphic networks were often laid concomitantly. Telecommunications were also a dominant factor behind the creation of standard times zones in 1884. From a multiplicity of local times, zones of constant time with Greenwich (England) as the reference were laid. This improved the scheduling of passenger and freight transportation at national levels. By 1895, every continent was linked by telegraph lines, a precursor of the global information network that would emerge in the late 20th century. Business transactions became more efficient as production, management and consumption centers could interact with delays that were in hours instead of weeks and even months. Several telecommunication giants of today (such as American Telephones and Telegraphs; AT&T), started up as telegraph service providers.

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