The Performance of Pre-industrial Means of Transportation

The Performance of Pre-industrial Means of Transportation

The most common pre-industrial transportation modes had the following characteristics:

  • Walking. Under normal conditions, such as the presence of a well-maintained path and level terrain, someone carrying 18 kilos can walk 30 km over a period of about 8 hours. This distance can easily be halved if the terrain is less uniform and if travel takes place under unsuitable weather conditions.
  • Beasts of burden. Using animals to assist travel and carrying goods extended the capacity and the range of trade. A horse can carry 125 kilos, including the rider. Therefore, horse supported trade either involved someone walking by the side of the horse, or the use of a second (or more) horse to carry cargoes while riding. Camels were even more effective to carry additional loads and were well adapted to the dry conditions prevailing in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Using animals to pull a conveyance such as a cart or a barge substantially improve the capacity of transportation, but require well-maintained roads or a river system. Relying on animals for travel also involved additional time consuming and labor-intensive tasks such as feeding and caring for them. Such an activity, therefore, tended to take place in large groups and required a good supply of feeds.
  • Sailing. Although sailing was used for millennia to transport people and cargoes, the capacity of sailships rarely exceeded 100 tons and they were not designed for deep-sea travel. For instance, the Dhow was an ancient coastal sailing ship found through the Middle East and South Asia and supported Arab trade in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, new ship designs started to emerge able to carry larger quantities of cargo over longer distances. Although many sailships bear the name of a specific class, there was no particular design standard, implying a variety of sizes and capacities. One of the first effective cargo sailing vessels was the carrack, which could carry up to 1500 tons at about 10 km/hr. From the 15th to the 17th centuries, the carrack was the linchpin of long-distance maritime trade. By the 17th century, it was gradually replaced by the galleon, which even being of average lower capacity, was much more maneuverable and cost-effective. Some galleons exceeded 1500 tons. Sailing technology reached its peak efficiency by the 19th century when clipper ships were introduced and able to carry a good quantity of cargo with effective distances of about 700 km per day. The effective daily travel distance for maritime transport can vary considerably depending on prevailing wind and sea current conditions.