Global Space/Time Convergence: Days Required to Circumnavigate the Globe

Days Required to Circumnavigate the Globe

Note: Initial concept initially developed by McHale, J. (1969) The Future of the Future,
New York: George Braziller.

Improvements in transport technology enabled a gradual space/time convergence within the global transport system. While in absolute terms, distances remain the same, in relative terms (such as time-wise), distances are getting shorter. Before the industrial revolution, transport technology only permitted limited access to other regions of the world. Technological innovations in transportation were mainly used to increase the economic efficiency of European economies, enabling them to have access to resources and markets. This began with mercantilism and gradually shaped the global economy with declining transport costs and the ability to move passengers and freight over longer distances.

However, global space/time convergence is not spatially uniform, implying that some regions benefited more than others. For instance, space/time convergence in Western Europe and North America, and over the North Atlantic, has taken place at a faster rate than other regions of the world, such a Latin America or Africa. It can be assumed that as economic and infrastructure development takes place around the world, space/time convergence is likely to become more uniform.

Circumnavigation is a good proxy for assessing space/time convergence. Before the introduction of the steamship in the mid 19th century, circumnavigating the globe would take about one sailing year, a journey significantly delayed by rounding the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan. The late 19th and early 20th centuries provided a series of innovations that would greatly improve circumnavigation, notably the construction of the Suez (1869) and Panama (1914) canals as well as steam propulsion. The circumnavigation was reduced to about 100 days (the “Jules Vernes effect”) at the beginning of the 20th century and 60 days by 1925 with fast liner services.

In the second half of the 20th century, the introduction of the jet plane reduced circumnavigation to about 34 hours if two (or three) direct and connecting long-range flights can be booked (e.g. New York – Dubai, Dubai – Tokyo, and Tokyo – New York). However, such a short duration is rarely practical and used.