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Human beings keep inventing more and more powerful ways of moving themselves and other things across the Earth and, more recently, through the air and into outer space. Systems of transport defined the range and intensity of contact that local populations had with outsiders; those contacts in turn regulated the frequency with which important new things, skills, and ideas were disseminated.
Changing modes of transportation throughout the millennia allowed wanderers, traders, and missionaries to carry themselves—and innumerable different ideas and things—across the face of the Earth, moving ever further, faster, and more frequently. As transport expanded in range and carrying capacity, it accelerated historical change by bringing new ideas, new skills, and new goods to new places, and tightening the human web of communication that existed from the time language emerged and bands of fully human beings began to spread from the African savannas where they first arose.
To begin with, human muscles were the only means of transport our ancestors knew. By walking erect and relying solely on leg muscles for locomotion, they freed hands and arms for carrying babies and all sorts of other things. Eventually, human carrying capacity was much enlarged by using pouches tied to the waist, and by carrying heavier objects in slings stretched across the shoulders, using backpacks, and balancing jars on top of the head. But no one knows when or how these adjuncts to unaided human muscles originated or how they spread. Nonetheless these simple forms of transport continue to exist. Women carrying jars of water on their heads can still be seen in places where pipes do not bring it into their homes, for example. And children carry books to school in backpacks in most modem cities.
A superior cooling system makes human bodies unusually efficient load carriers thanks to our sweat glands. As it evaporates, sweat dissipates body heat far faster than panting does, thus sustaining prolonged muscular effort even under a tropical sun. Vigorous persons can walk up to twenty miles a day even with loads of twenty to thirty pounds. Accordingly, for hundreds of thousands of years, foragers moved about in small bands, carrying everything they needed with them day after day. On festival occasions they met and danced with neighbors and sometimes encountered wandering strangers. Such contacts allowed exchange of rare and precious objects, like razor- sharp obsidian blades, across hundreds of miles. Superior tools and weapons, such as the bow and arrow, also spread very widely by the same sort of occasional contacts and collisions among small wandering bands.
As our ancestors spread across the Earth some bands left tropical warmth behind and had to learn to live in diverse climates. This too provoked invention— clothes for example. But as far as transport was concerned, the really important advance was learning to move across water. Sitting astride a floating log was perhaps the first sort of flotation. But when, where, and how human beings first learned to make and use burden-bearing rafts and boats is unknown. We do know that people got to Australia sometime between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, and can only have done so by crossing about sixty miles of open sea. This required rafts or boats of some sort; and therefore counts as the dawn of human seafaring, even though contact with the Asian mainland was not subsequently maintained.
Movement through Water
Fishing at sea from rafts and boats was of lasting importance and probably first flourished on the monsoon seas of Southeast Asia. Monsoon winds blow equably for nearly all of the year, reversing their direction each spring and autumn. That made sailing safer and easier than on stormier seas. Fishermen, of course, had to be able to get back to shore with their catch, preferably arriving at the harbor or beach they had departed from to rejoin women and children left behind. In other words, they had to be able to steer and move across or even against the wind and sea or river currents. Various combinations of keel, paddles, oars, and sails eventually made that possible, but all details are unknown.
Yet it is obvious that when controlled movement through water had been mastered, long journeys also became feasible up and down rivers, and by sailing within sight of land, hauling boats or rafts ashore when needing to rest. As a result, navigation by sea and along suitably slow rivers began to match and more than match overland transport, since rafts, dugout canoes and small boats (sometimes made of animal skins stretched on a wooden frame) carried larger loads longer distances with far less muscular effort than moving cross-country required. But for a long time stormy coasts where high tides prevailed were too dangerous for such navigation. Accordingly, to begin with travel and fishing at sea flourished principally along monsoon coasts of the Indian Ocean, the southwest Pacific Ocean, and the numerous Southeast Asian islands in between.
Domesticated Animals as Transport
Starting about 11,000 years ago, in several different parts of the Earth, people settled down and began to live in agricultural villages. Producing the food they ate by prolonged muscular effort allowed human populations to become far denser than before. They also needed more transport. After all, foragers moved themselves to where their food grew naturally; while farmers had to carry enough food for a whole year (plus seed for the next season) from where it grew to a safe place for storage near their dwelling places. In addition, more and heavier things were worth having when people remained in the same place year round; and some of them—roof timbers, for example—often had to come from afar.
Enhanced need for transport was met when many (not all) food producers began to use the strength of domesticated animals to carry loads. Early farmers in western Asia were particularly lucky in having within their reach a variety of domesticable animals that were useful for transport: cattle, donkeys, horses, mules and camels, Water buffalo in India and Southeast Asia, yaks in Tibet, llamas and alpacas in Peru, and reindeer in the Arctic north were also locally important as beasts of burden, but fell far short of the capabilities of the animals of western Asia. Accordingly, they eventually spread very widely among other peoples, wherever climate allowed and sufficient fodder could be found.
Donkeys were easiest to manage. By 4500 BCE or before, caravans of donkeys began to traverse western Asia carrying specially valued goods on their backs for hundreds of miles. In the land of Sumer near the shore of the Persian Gulf this overland transport system intersected with rafts and boats moving along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and with the long-range coastal shipping of the Indian Ocean. By about 3500 BCE the mingling of peoples, skill and knowledge that this far-ranging transport network created led to the rise of the world’s first cities and of what we call civilization.
Later on, horses and especially mules tended to displace donkey caravans in western Asia since they could carry larger loads. Elsewhere, other transport networks—sometimes relying solely on human portage, as in Mexico—allowed other cities and civilizations to arise. They signalized a fundamental departure from older and simpler forms of human society. Being places where strangers perpetually came and went, and where rules of kinship and local custom could not cope with important everyday encounters, cities, and then states that embraced a plurality of cities, needed new kinds of authority and subordination to function smoothly; managing long-distance exchanges, safeguarding new forms of wealth, and keeping invisible spirits and gods friendly demanded special attention. To meet these needs, a few privileged city dwellers ceased to raise the food they consumed, finding ways to induce or compel farmers round about to hand over part of the harvest to them.
In Sumer and in most (but not all) other early civilizations, priests claiming to know how to please the gods by conducting sumptuous temple rituals were the earliest managers of urban society. Beginning about 3000 BCE, military leaders began to rival them since gathering and defending new forms of wealth required ever-greater effort. Everywhere priests and warriors sooner or later came together and jointly supervised a transport system that brought large quantities of food and fiber into city storehouses, and used what they collected from the countryside to maintain themselves and to feed specialized artisans who manufactured a multiplicity of objects for the use of professional soldiers and for religious rituals. In Sumer, spinning and weaving wool and dispatching bales of cloth on donkey-back to exchange for items needed to keep soldiers, priests and gods happy—metal, timber, lapis lazuli, perfumes and much else—was especially significant since it kept the cities of Sumer in touch with diverse and distant hinterlands.
Sumerian rulers thus became the managers of a transport network that brought anything of unusual interest or usefulness to their attention from across many hundreds of miles. Wheels, capable of carrying heavier loads with far less effort than before, were among the items invented somewhere within that network, and duly appeared in Sumer where wheeled toys of clay show up a long time before archaeologists have found any traces of actual carts and wagons. At first, wheels were made of solid wood, fixed to an axle that turned underneath the body of the cart or wagon. About 1800 BCE fixed axles and spoked wheels were invented, concentrating friction in well-greased wheel hubs so that pulling heavy loads became far easier than before.
Spoked wheels and hubs made chariots decisive in war, while carrying large quantities of grain, wool, timber, and other heavy commodities on two- and four-wheeled carts and wagons supplied armies and cities much more easily than before. A pair of oxen hitched to a four-wheeled wagon by their horns could pull thousands of pounds across the dry and level landscapes that prevailed in the land of Sumer. But in hilly and wetter places, carts and wagons long remained of little use because they bogged down in mud and could not cross streams.
Other civilizations constructed other transport systems to supply their cities and sustain states and their rulers. Within the Old World, contact by land among the principal civilizations depended on caravans using one or more of the animals of western Asia. Caravans attained more or less permanent trans-continental linkages after 101 BCE when the Chinese emperor Wudi sent an expedition westward to central Asia looking for a new breed of “blood sweating” horses to use in wars against steppe nomads. He succeeded in his quest, and in subsequent centuries contact across Asia was never broken off for long. Silk, metal, and other precious goods traveling overland between China, India, and western Asia were matched by the spread of ideas, especially the missionary religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam that fitted the human needs of city living. Infectious diseases also spread far and wide along caravan routes, leaving survivors with antibodies in their bloodstreams that were effective against an expanding array of lethal infections.
Caravans had their limitations however, since even a camel, the strongest caravan animal, could only carry about four hundred pounds. Making rough terrain suitable for wheeled vehicles in order to carry heavier loads required building smooth, firm roadways, and bridging streams. That required prolonged and costly effort. Nevertheless, the Assyrian Empire (935–612 BCE) pioneered large-scale road construction. It did so to allow marching soldiers to repel invaders and suppress revolts more quickly. But armies needed supplies from the rear, so merchants used military roads from the start, and long-range carrying capacity by wheeled transport correspondingly increased wherever roads existed.
Later empires, both in China and Europe, also put much effort into building roads. Roman roads are especially well known. They eventually linked the city of Rome with all the provinces except insular Britain, while within Britain local roads linked the productive south with the north, where a garrison defended a wall intended to keep barbarians out. Yet sea commerce across the Mediterranean was far more important for Roman society than anything transported by road. Ships circulated articles of common consumption—grain, wine, salt, cloth, pottery, and much else—among the coastal cities. The Roman roads fed that sea commerce by extending its reach inland, and also linked up along the northern border with river shipping on the Rhine and Danube Rivers and with the Nile in the south.
Roads during the ancient Chinese dynastic period were less important than those of Rome largely because a network of rivers and canals assured the Chinese government of capacious and cheap internal transport. Empire (935–612 BCE) canals in the Huang (Yellow) River and Yangzi (Chang) basins were initially built for irrigation purposes; but once in place the government could collect taxes in kind from farmers many hundreds of miles from the capital, carrying everything in barges. Sometimes barges simply drifted or sailed down stream, and sometimes gangs of porters had to haul them upstream, pulling on ropes from the banks. That extended navigation far inland; and since such barges carried large quantities long distances very cheaply, they knitted the most densely inhabited regions of China into a single whole much more tightly than anywhere else in the world. Beginning about 1000 CE China accordingly pioneered the construction of a market economy, lubricated by paper money, which embraced ordinary peasants and common taxpayers.
Elsewhere in the world, the balance between shipping and overland transport varied with topography, climate, and the array of domesticated animals available. In the Americas it is possible that some early immigrants from Asia came by sea, beginning about 20,000 years ago. At any rate, Native Americans were familiar with canoes and rafts long before Norsemen got to Newfoundland, and canoe navigation along the Amazon, Mississippi and lesser rivers was long established when Europeans showed up on the scene to record the fact. The Hopewell and Mississippian peoples of North America, for example, used materials and a few specially manufactured goods that came from hundreds of miles away. Metallic copper from Lake Superior and tobacco pipes were among the objects they carried up and down the rivers of North America. Overland transport among Amerindians depended on human portage, except in the high Andes of South America where llamas and alpacas supplemented human muscles.
In South America successive empires also constructed an extensive road system in the mountainous terrain of the high Andes that was quite as impressive as that of the Roman Empire. Coastal navigation on the Pacific, in which light balsa rafts played a part, also connected Peru with Mexico in a slender and almost unrecorded fashion; while canoes traveled widely among the islands of the Caribbean as well.
Parts of North Africa shared the caravans and shipping of western Asia; but further south, where tsetse flies made it impossible for horses and cattle to survive, human portage remained the primary mode of overland transport until roads and trucks took over in recent times. Native Australians also relied on human portage entirely. Overall, major improvements in transport continued to concentrate in Eurasia and along its fringes where the overwhelming majority of humankind were already linked by an ever-intensifying web of transport and communication.
Within Eurasia, a striking change came to overland transport when domesticated camels became more common after about 200 CE. These animals were hard to breed successfully; but when the arts of camel management spread from South Arabia, and when a somewhat larger, related species, the two-humped Bactrian camel had been domesticated in central Asia, caravans became far more efficient than before. First of all, camels carried heavier loads than horses and mules. They could also fuel their muscles by grazing on scattered, thorny vegetation in desert landscapes and go for several days without water. Consequently, crossing deserts became possible as never before. All of a sudden, the Sahara in northern Africa became passable; so did deserts in Central and western Asia.
The effect was rather like what happened later when Europeans began sailing across the world’s oceans. New peoples and separate civilizations within the Old World, became far more accessible to one another and exchanges of diseases, skills, and ideas attained new range and rapidity. The most conspicuous result of camel transport was the remarkable speed with which the faith of Islam spread from Arabia across western Asia and began to penetrate India, East Africa, central Asia and, before long, eastern Europe as well. Initial Muslim victories depended on cohesion sustained by their religious faith, but superior logistical support from camel caravans also contributed mightily.
Using camels for overland haulage was cheaper than maintaining roads for wheeled vehicles, so in the Muslim heartlands of western Asia existing roads were allowed to decay and city layouts changed since narrow passageways sufficed for camels. Wheeled transport continued to exist in fringe areas—Europe, China, India and the steppes. But for centuries cheap overland transport on camelback gave Islamic peoples an advantage, especially after they perfected legal systems that allowed camel caravans to move safely through settled regions.
Obviously, desert foraging at night only worked in uninhabited places. Letting camels loose to feed on growing crops was bad business for farmers and merchants alike. Instead, Muslim governments built caravanseries where men and beasts could stay overnight and allowed charitable landowners to escape taxation by dedicating selected estates to supplying free provender for travelers. In effect, free desert forage was thus ingeniously reproduced in agricultural landscapes, reconciling the needs of traveling merchants and their animals with the interests of peasants and landowners. Free food and shelter along the way meant that out-of-pocket costs for caravan transport became surprisingly slender so camels could compete on some routes with ships using free energy from the wind.
Since Muslims shared advances made in ship design until after about 1300, their combination of cheap transport by land and sea was unmatched elsewhere. Muslim traders accordingly became the most successful in the world, operating along the coasts of China and Mediterranean Europe, while penetrating the Eurasian steppes and much of sub- Saharan Africa.
Sailing the Seas
Yet eventually advances in shipbuilding and navigation made sailing on stormy and tidal waters of the northerly Pacific and Atlantic oceans feasible. Thereupon all-weather ships inaugurated long distance transport networks that eventually carried luxuries and goods of common consumption around the whole Earth. Yet it took a long while for all the prerequisites for safe and reliable all-weather shipping to come together. And since wooden boats seldom leave archaeological traces, knowing when and where shipbuilding practices changed is largely guess work.
One breakthrough was the invention of pontoon outriggers to stabilize dugout canoes. These outriggers allowed canoes to carry larger sails and move far faster through rougher seas. Probably as a result, about 500 CE sailors from Borneo crossed the Indian Ocean and settled the island of Madagascar off the East African coast for the first time. Before then, other sailors had moved into the Pacific, and occupied islands as distant as the Solomons. Such lengthy voyages are attested by linguistic affinities between the so-called Malagasy language of Madagascar and languages of Borneo in the East Indies; and by the array of Austronesian languages that range across islands of the Southwest Pacific.
Some centuries later, speakers of Polynesian languages began to cross far greater Pacific distances, reaching Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand and some tiny atolls in-between. Exact dates of their arrival are unsure but it seems clear that New Zealand was the last to be settled, perhaps only about 1300 CE. The Polynesian dispersal clearly did depend on sailing canoes equipped with outriggers, and their voyages constitute a surprising accomplishment since finding isolated islands in the immensity of the Pacific was hit and miss. As a result, people on most of the Polynesian islands failed to maintain contact with the outside world until European seamen suddenly intruded on them after 1522.
Austronesian and Polynesian sailing across the southern oceans was matched by increasingly successful ventures across the stormy seas of the north. Light boats made of animal skins floated buoyantly even on top of big waves; and a keen eye to the weather allowed sailors using such vessels to come and go short distances more or less safely on the northern reaches of the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. Inuits, for example, spread around the Arctic shoreline from somewhere in Asia, moving by kayak and dog sled; and learned to harpoon whales from larger skin boats about 800 CE. By that same time, coracles made of cattle skins had carried a few Irish monks to Iceland across the North Atlantic.
But just as navigation across really long ocean distances in the southern seas required outrigger pontoons and larger sails, so the stormy northern seas could only be regularly crossed by building larger ships that cut through the waves rather than riding lightly on top of them. In the North Atlantic, Viking ships of the ninth to eleventh centuries were a halfway step towards safe navigation. Built of overlapping planks nailed to a heavy rib and keel frame, and rendered waterproof by careful caulking, they were propelled either by oars or, when the wind was favorable, by a square sail. They dodged storms by going ashore or taking refuge in harbors along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines of Europe and rowed up and down the rivers of Russia and Western Europe as well. Sometimes they went raiding and destroying, sometimes they traded or set themselves up as rulers, and sometimes they pioneered settlements of almost uninhabited landscape as in Iceland, Greenland, and, for a short while, even in Newfoundland. Viking boats were strongly built to cut through big waves, but since they needed large crews for rowing against the wind, they had limited cargo capacity and their open hulls allowed seawater to splash over the sides, soaking crew and cargo alike.
Really satisfactory all-weather ships needed closed decks, and ways to steer and sail upwind and against the tide if necessary. Such ships were eventually constructed in China and in Atlantic Europe, using quite different designs. Chinese ships were flat-bottomed vessels with hulls divided into separate water-tight compartments. Instead of keels, they had center boards that could be raised and lowered through a slit in the bottom, and were steered by stern-post rudders and by using multiple masts and sails. By the fourteenth century, the largest Chinese seagoing vessels were huge, expensive and efficient. Admiral Zheng He, for example, led a series of voyages to the Indian Ocean between 1405 and 1433, the first of which comprised sixty-two ships and carried no fewer than 27,800 men.
By that same date, sea-going European ships improved on Viking designs by being decked over, with double planked hulls nailed, inside and out, to a rib and keel skeleton as before. They dispensed with rowing by using multiple masts and sails, some triangular (originating probably in the Indian ocean) for tacking into the wind, some square for sailing before it. Such a combination of masts and sails, together with stern-post rudders (probably coming from China), made it possible to come and go almost at will despite the variable winds and strong tides that beset Europe’s Atlantic coastlines. Indeed once sailors were capable of traversing those stormy seas, other oceans of the Earth, except the frozen Arctic, were comparatively easy since the reversible monsoons of Asia were matched by trade winds north and south of the equator that blow year round from a single but opposite direction.
Deciphering the pattern of ocean winds and currents was a matter of trial and error over generations, as ships became capable of longer and longer voyages. Arab, Indian, Polynesian, Malay, Chinese, Japanese, European and other seamen all did so within their different, and sometimes overlapping ranges of operation. By 1492 such knowledge had accumulated among seamen so that Columbus, for example, knew exactly how to go south to the Azores, then sail west before the northeast trade winds and return by sailing north to the zone of prevailing westerlies beyond Cape Hatteras. That was why his voyage was so swiftly and regularly repeated, and why European seamen so suddenly began to traverse all the world’s oceans within a mere thirty years after 1492.
Methods for measuring latitude north and south by sighting the sun or north star allowed ships to steer accurately towards a known coastline, and increasingly accurate local maps and charts made getting into and out of distant ports much safer. Magnetic compasses, coming from China initially, also allowed ships to maintain a steady direction under clouded skies where sun and stars could not be seen. But until the eighteenth century sailors could not measure east-west longitude. Finding small islands and exact time of arrival on familiar coasts across ocean distances therefore remained hit and miss until marine chronometers, able to keep time for weeks and months on end, made longitude at sea accurately measurable after 1762.
Nonetheless, European capabilities of ocean voyaging transformed human affairs rather quickly long before finding small islands became easy to do. The Chinese government had withdrawn from overseas ventures after 1433 and disbanded its sea-going fleet so as to concentrate its resources instead on guarding China’s land frontier against the Mongols. This left European seamen without serious competition on a global scale, since light-built shipping of the southern seas could not endure northern storms. The stout construction of North Atlantic ships also withstood the recoil of newly invented heavy cannon, and this gave European ships another advantage over more lightly built vessels. Cannon-carrying European ships made older ramming and boarding tactics of naval warfare suddenly obsolete since they could sink approaching enemies at a distance, and could even threaten local rulers ashore with punishing bombardment. Wherever such vessels appeared therefore local rulers had to accommodate them, allowing Europeans to come ashore for trade and sometimes paying them tribute.
Overall effects were especially catastrophic in the Americas and among other previously isolated populations. That was largely because unfamiliar lethal diseases brought by European seamen wreaked havoc on such populations, totally lacking, as they were, in acquired resistances to all the newly arrived infections. Drastic depopulation ensued, allowing newcomers from Europe, together with large numbers of slaves imported from Africa to transform the culture and character of American populations. Similar destruction and replacement took place in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania some centuries later.
The peoples of Eurasia and most of Africa were already disease-experienced, thanks to long-standing transport connections overland and by sea. Nonetheless, Eurasia and Africa were profoundly affected too by the onset of global seafaring. To put it in a nutshell: as coastal contacts became more and more significant for trade, for war and for exchanges of skill and ideas, the Eurasian continent was in effect turned inside out. Previously, China, India and the Muslim heartlands of western Asia had to concentrate attention on their land frontiers. Cavalry tactics, dating back to about 750 BCE, gave steppe nomads superior mobility with the result that adjacent farming populations suffered frequent raids and occasional conquests across the next two millennia. Defending, negotiating, and competing against nomad states and armies was correspondingly critical for farmers of the Eurasian fringe lands. The Chinese government’s decision to withdraw from the Indian Ocean in 1433 demonstrated that concern, only to open China to harassment from the sea when Portuguese ships showed up along the South China coast in 1513 and swiftly elbowed their way ashore at Macao by the 1540s.
India, Java and other Southeast Asian lands also allowed Europeans to set up fortified trading forts; and French, Dutch and English trading companies soon transformed themselves into local rulers. Ensuing armed struggles made the Dutch supreme in Indonesia and the English in India by 1763. Penetration of the Muslim heartlands was slower but after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798–1799, the Ottoman Empire and other Muslim states found it impossible to keep Europeans from demanding and getting trade and other privileges. East Asians held out until first the Chinese (1839) and then the Japanese (1854) saw their best efforts to keep Europeans at arm’s length crumble under the threat of naval guns. Thereafter, efforts to transform old ways and somehow catch up with European power by appropriating at least some European skills and ideas prevailed throughout the non-European world.
By that time, however, European intruders had acquired new advantages by using newly invented steamships and railroads to transcend older limits. Steam engines, fired by burning coal in the nineteenth century, and oil-burning internal combustion motors in the twentieth century provided far greater energy for transport, carrying greater loads much faster and far more predictably.
For ocean distances, practicable steamships dated from 1819 when a steam-assisted sailing ship first crossed the Atlantic. Rapid development ensued, featuring a sudden increase in size after 1858 (when iron construction replaced wooden hulls), and a subsequent race to speed up Atlantic crossings that reduced them to less than a week by the 1930s.
For river transport, shallow-draft flat-bottomed steamboats with paddle wheels amidships flourished mightily for half a century after 1807, when Robert Fulton made his successful run up the Hudson River. Steamboats, however, suffered eclipse in the United States after the 1860s, since railroads proved faster and more convenient. Nevertheless, they remained of critical importance on African rivers and in parts of Asia where railroads were not built until roads and trucks supplanted them after about 1930.
The Advent of Rail Travel
For overland transport, steam powered railroads followed close behind oceanic steamships. The first commercial steam railroad, 25 miles long, opened in England in 1825; but building longer railroads was costly and took time. Railroads therefore began to come into their own only in the 1860s. The first transcontinental railway opened in 1869 when the Union Pacific Railroad in the United States was completed. Thereafter European investors financed railroad building wherever strategic or commercial advantages suggested. The opening of the Trans- Siberian Railroad in 1903, connecting St. Petersburg on the Baltic with Vladivostok on the Pacific, was the longest railroad ever built and still helps to hold the Russian state together.
In western Europe itself, railroads gave easy access to inland coalfields, accelerating industrial development enormously. Railroads also played a prominent part in European wars as early as 1859, climaxing during World War I (1914–1918) when railroad schedules for mobilization locked initial war plans into place, and subsequently supplied all the war fronts for years on end.
The impact of railroads was especially great in large countries like the United States, Russia, Canada, India, and Argentina, binding them together internally more closely than before while also entangling them in worldwide markets. China as always remained different, for old-fashioned barge transport on internal waterways continued to function slowly but cheaply; and for more than a century political instability inhibited large-scale railroad construction.
For the world as a whole, steam ships and railroads together created a far faster and more capacious transport system than before. Millions of persons emigrated from crowded lands in the Old World to settle in the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Vast quantities of grain and other foods, together with minerals and other raw materials, and innumerable manufactured goods began to circulate throughout the world. Simultaneously, European intruders took advantage of steamboats and railroads to penetrate China and Africa as never before. Japan, however, built its own railroads and steam ships. Everywhere else the new modes of transport were owned or managed by Europeans or persons of European descent until well into the twentieth century.
Until 1945 or so, Europeans retained this privileged position and, by making some accommodation to the United States after 1865, managed world affairs pretty much to suit themselves. Near monopoly of mechanical transport and communication sustained this lop-sided arrangement for a while, but it remained inherently unstable. One such instability arose from rivalries among the chief European states, climaxing in two world wars, 1914–1918 and 1939–1945. Just as important was the way the propagation of the new transport (and communication) nets among Asian, African, and American populations allowed local peoples to mobilize their discontents and prepare to assert control over their own societies again. As a result, soon after World War II European colonial empires disintegrated everywhere.
New Modes of Transport in the Twentieth Century
More decentralized and flexible forms of overland transport powered by internal combustion motors sustained this political transformation. Cars and trucks first became important for the transport of goods and persons during World War I. Trucks commonly carried loads door to door, diminishing transfer costs. In addition, individuals and small companies could compete with larger fleets of trucks on more or less even terms. Roads still had to be built and maintained by public authorities and remained costly. But roads were considerably cheaper to build than railroads. Hence for hauls of less than three or four hundred miles, the convenience and flexibility of trucking was almost as superior to railroad transport as railroads had been to river steamboats eighty years before.
Almost simultaneously, airplanes began to affect transport. Airplanes took off with the Wright brothers’ flights in 1903, but World War II was what made them important for transport, a generation after cars and trucks had come of age during World War I. Transcontinental flights were pioneered in the 1930s, but Allied armed forces first made large-scale air transport global between 194l and 1945. Planes became faster and larger in the following decades and air transport expanded accordingly. By the 1950s, variously subsidized national airlines combined to make tourist and business travel by air normal. Air delivery of mail and important packages displaced older means of transport for long distances; but airplanes seldom carried heavy objects or bulk commodities. Their high speed came at a cost that made air transport a semi-luxury.
All the same, in Arctic lands and some other barren and remote regions, light airplanes became the only way to come and go, while long-distance flights, following great circle routes, crisscrossed the globe, weaving a new pattern that made passage across high northern latitudes important as never before. Another side effect of flight was the establishment of uniform weather reporting, and use of English for air traffic control at airports everywhere—including even the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Rockets were yet another form of transport emerging from World War II, but their loads remained far more restricted. Explosive warheads were the most threatening, but have never been used in practice. The most significant rocket flights launched various satellites and sensors into orbit around the Earth, or, in other cases, escaped Earth’s gravity to explore the solar system and fringes of the universe beyond. Such sensors have expanded information about the Earth, moon, planets and stars enormously since 1957 when the Russians first launched Sputnik into orbit. Americans countered with the feat of sending men to the moon in 1969 and returning them safely. But the future of space travel remains uncertain. Being extremely costly, it will not likely affect everyday life in the way older changes in methods of transport have done throughout the past. But disaster from nuclear warheads delivered by rockets still remains a threat to the future of humankind.
Human beings have invented more and more powerful ways of moving themselves and other things across the face of the Earth and, more recently, through the air and into outer space. Successive systems of transport defined the range and intensity of contact local populations had with outsiders; and those contacts in turn regulated the frequency with which important new things, skills, and ideas caused people to abandon familiar ways and try something new. Accordingly, as transport and accompanying communication intensified, the pace of social change accelerated, distressing most of the people affected.
This is the awkward state of human society today. But as always the future remains unknowable. Nonetheless, transport will continue to affect how people live, altering everyday experience by bringing novelties from afar for us to accept, reject, or modify just as our predecessors have always had to do.
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