1.3 – The Emergence of Mechanized Transportation Systems

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Before the Industrial Revolution, even with limited technical capabilities, transportation enabled the setting of empires and trade routes. The Industrial Revolution allowed mechanized transportation systems, expanding mobility at the local and global levels.

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

Transportation is closely linked with the genesis of globalization. Moving people and freight has been an essential factor in 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 evolutions. Moving people and cargo faster, in greater volumes, over longer distances, and more conveniently became possible. This process is very complex and related to the spatial evolution of economic systems and the associated technical developments.

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, rowers propelled ships, with sails added around 2,500 BCE as a complementary form of propulsion. The transported quantities were minimal, and so was the speed at which people and freight moved. The average overland speed by horse, 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 water bodies, such as rivers and bays, could trade over long distances and maintain political, economic, and cultural cohesion over a larger territory. Accordingly, the first civilizations emerged along river systems for agriculture and trading purposes (Tigris-Euphrates, Nile, Indus, Ganges, Huang He). Evidence underlined that for the same load unit, land transport costs were 50 times higher than sea transport costs, while river transport was six times higher. Long-distance trade existed, but traded commodities were high-value, non-perishable goods such as spices, silk, wine, and perfume. The most active overland trading routes formed a system that would eventually be known as the Silk Road. Around the Mediterranean, the amphora permitted an early 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, most of the trade was local in scope. Economies based on autonomy and basic subsistence could not generate much trade. Cities were located to benefit from 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. The size of cities also remained unchanged over time because of urban mobility constraints. Since people can walk about 5 km per hour and 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 corresponding to about 20 square kilometers. Thus, most rural areas centered around a village and cities rarely exceeded a 5 km diameter. The largest cities of that era, such as Rome, Beijing, Constantinople, or Venice, never surpassed an area of 20 square kilometers. Large cities above 100,000 inhabitants were scarce, and those that exceeded such a population did so because they were at the nexus of maritime and land trade networks.

Before the Industrial Revolution, urban systems were not present, as each city was a self-sufficient economic system with minimal trade. The preponderance of city-states during this period can partly be explained by transportation and the difficulties of shipping goods. Among the most notable exceptions were the Roman and Chinese empires, which committed extraordinary efforts at building transportation networks and consequently maintained control over an extensive territory that lasted centuries.

  • The Roman Empire grew around an intricate coastal shipping network and roads, supporting large cities around the Mediterranean basin. Its regional trade network was supplemented by long-distance trade that included India and China.
  • The Chinese Empire established an extensive fluvial transport network with several artificial canals connected to form what has been dubbed the Grand Canal. Some parts of it are still being used today.

The economic importance and the geopolitics of transportation were recognized very early. Maritime transportation was the most convenient way to move freight and passengers around, an advantage that would not change until the Industrial Revolution. Large commercial empires were established with the setting of maritime trade networks. However, long-distance maritime trade involved risk, which favored the emergence of a financing and insurance industry as mitigation instruments. In Ancient Greece, merchants financed their commercial ventures through high-interest loans that acted simultaneously 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 originates in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi around 1700 BCE stating repayment of a loan for a successful voyage. These early forms of financing and insurance permitted commercial activities that would otherwise not have taken place to the same extent.

By the 13th century, an extensive maritime trade network was established, the highways of the time, centered along the navigable rivers, canals, and coastal waters of Europe and China. 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, took place. By the 14th century, galleys were finally replaced by full-fledged sailships (the caravel, the carrick, and then the galleon) that were faster and required smaller crews. The discovery by the Portuguese in 1431 of the North Atlantic circular wind pattern, better known as the trade winds, marked the beginning of European expansion. A similar wind pattern was also found in the Indian and Pacific oceans with the monsoon winds. This allowed sailships to travel over longer distances along consistent and reliable routes.

In 1453, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks became a critical geopolitical event. The capital of the Byzantium Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) acted for centuries as a trade hub. Its fall disrupted the traditional land trade routes from Europe to Asia. Emerging European powers were forced to find alternative maritime routes through high-sea expeditions. One trade route alternative, followed by Columbus in 1492, was to sail to the west across the Atlantic. The other alternative, followed by Vasco de Gama in 1497, was to sail to the East by rounding the African continent. Columbus stumbled upon the American continent, while Gama found a maritime route to India using the Cape of Good Hope. Wherever they went, European explorers realized they had several technological advantages, such as artillery and firearms, over local political entities. One remarkable advantage concerned the refinement of celestial navigation allowing ships more direct paths without using the coast as a reference. What started as exploration led to the capture of strategic trading locations, treaties with local rulers, or the annexation of territories.

These events and the promised new trade routes 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 the Mediterranean trade for centuries, would not fill a modern container ship. By the late 16th century, the capacity of the British fleet was estimated to be around 68,000 tons and required 16,000 sailors. Containerships built in 2022 had a capacity of 236,000 tons and a crew of 22.

The volume, but not the speed of trade, improved under mercantilism (15th to 18th century), notably for maritime transportation. Despite all, distribution capacities and speeds were minimal. For example, a stagecoach 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. Thus, most international flows focused on coastal systems. The inland transportation system was very limited in its capacity to carry passengers and freight. By the late 18th century, canal systems emerged 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 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, which came to be known as the Industrial Revolution. Human and animal labor was substituted for mechanical labor, and new materials, such as chemicals, allowed for new processes and products. The factors that have led to the remarkable changes brought by the Industrial Revolution are subject to debate regarding 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 innovations and their application to practical uses by engineers.
  • Property rights. The outcome of the strengthening of democratic institutions leaning on the rule of law that guarantees and protects private ownership. Property owners had a greater representation in elected legislatures, and capital accumulation could expand—greater freedom in setting commercial decisions allowed for entrepreneurship and forming corporations.
  • Capital markets. Institutions such as banks are 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, and the cost of moving resources and products declined.

The Industrial Revolution radically changed the foundations of economic systems and set in motion the emergence of a global economy. Most of the technical innovations that modified the way to produce and transport took place in a short period, mainly between 1760 and 1800. Massive modifications of transport systems occurred in two major phases. The first centered on the development of canal systems, and the second centered on 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 for 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. The term horsepower was also coined by Watt as a comparison to the number of horses a steam engine could technically be able to replace. 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 fluvial transportation mode on the Delaware River. By 1807, commercial steamboat services were inaugurated. This marked a new era in the mechanization of land and maritime transport systems.

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 carry heavy loads effectively. Although improvements were made to road transport systems in the early 17th century, such as the Turnpike Trusts in Britain (1706) and the development of stagecoaches, this was insufficient 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 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. In such a context, the early stages of the Industrial Revolution focused on canal development since their economic benefits were more apparent. The discovery of latex in the 1730s and its transformation into flexible and durable rubber in the 1830s through vulcanization would allow for building wheels combining high speed and traction, revolutionizing road transportation. Before rubber tires, wheels were narrow, limiting the load and level of comfort, and prone to damage the road surface.

From the 1760s, 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 elevation changes and linked different segments of fluvial systems into a comprehensive waterway system. Barges, many pulled by horses, became increasingly used to move goods and raw materials at a scale and a cost that was not previously possible. Economies of scale and specialization, the foundation of modern industrial production systems, became increasingly applicable through fluvial canals. However, physical obstacles made canal construction expensive, 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 that 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. 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, 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 involvement 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 into 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 could no longer compete with rail services. In their initial development phase, 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, such as the Camden and Amboy Railroad Company chartered in 1830. From the 1860s, integrated railway systems started cohesively serving 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 stagecoach in 1830 to 72 hours by train in 1850. Thus, many cities became closely interconnected, 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 a vast pool of resources and new agricultural regions for the Eastern part of the United States. This was followed by Canada in 1886 (trans-Canada railway) and Russia in 1904 (trans-Siberian railway).

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. Due to technical improvements such as hull design, copper plating (less drag), improved sail designs, and iron joints and bolts, the speed of sailships increased by a factor of up to 50% between 1750 and 1830. By the 1850s, it could take more than three months to move cargo from China to the UK, while before clipper ships, the same journey could take up to one year. Another significant improvement was the design of accurate navigation charts where prevailing winds and sea currents could be used for navigation advantages. Composite ships (a mix of wood and iron armature) then took over a large portion of the trade until about 1900. Still, they could not compete with steamships, which have been continually improved since they were first introduced one hundred years before.

Regarding steam propulsion 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 an auxiliary power) to cross the Atlantic, taking 29 days to link Liverpool to New York. The first regular services for transatlantic passenger transport by steamships were inaugurated in 1838, followed up closely by using the helix instead of the paddlewheel as a more efficient propeller (1840). Iron armature ships were 30 to 40% lighter and had 15% more cargo capacity compared with wood armature ships of the same size. Among the advantages of steamships, being able to navigate irrespective of the wind direction allowed them to access river systems, permitting the development of active inland navigation. The gradual improvement of steam engine technology 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 using steel armature (1860), escaping the structural constraints of wood and iron armatures regarding ship size limitations.

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. The 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 steamships 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 cheap and abundant fuel. Oil increased the speed and capacity of maritime transport. The energy consumption of ships was reduced by a factor of 90% relative to coal, the primary energy source for steam engines before this innovation. An equal-sized oil-powered ship could transport more freight than a coal-powered ship, considerably reducing operating costs 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 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 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 the sailship could compete effectively with the steamship for the China trade. While integrating production and transshipping activities, the harbor became an industrial complex around which agglomerated activities using ponderous raw materials. From the 1880s, liner services linked major ports worldwide, 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 for passengers and freight. As the speed and power of locomotives improved above 100 km/hr, 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 underwent a demographic transition, implying rapid population growth 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 reliance on horses has historically been a waste disposal and public health challenge for cities since a horse could produce 30 to 40 pounds of manure and urine per day. The declining share of the rural population and the corresponding fast growth of the urban population favored the construction of the first 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 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 that changed commuting in the late 19th century. Initially, the rich used it as a form of leisure, but the working class rapidly adopted it as a mode of transportation for commuting. Today, the bicycle is less used in developed economies (outside recreational purposes), but it is still a major mode of transportation in developing economies, especially China.

This era also marked the first significant developments in telecommunications. The telegraph is considered the first efficient telecommunication device to gain wide market coverage. It enabled the first instantaneous transmission of information over vast distances. Prior to its invention, the information needed to be physically moved as documents (letters, bank orders, missives, books, etc.) through postal systems and was thus bound to their physical velocity. Semaphore telegraph systems using visual signals transmitted through a network of towers have been implemented beforehand. Still, their bandwidth was minimal, and they were highly constrained by geography since visibility is inversely proportional to distance. 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 later dubbed 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 time 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 interacted with delays in hours instead of weeks and even months. Several contemporary telecommunication giants today (such as American Telephones and Telegraphs; AT&T) started up as telegraph service providers.

Related Topics


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