The Evolution of Transportation

For most humans, the first form of transportation was their own two feet. Over time, shoes, skis, and snowshoes made travel by foot much easier. It’s believed that as far back as 3500 B.C. the first wheel was invented in the Middle East. Also during that time, humans were known to ride donkeys, camels, and horses to help them get around more efficiently.

What Led Humans to Travel?

Travel was often motivated by the need to find food. Additionally, as society evolved, people needed to travel to find work, claim their own land, or trade goods with others. Humans paved the way across their homelands, making trails that they would follow to find the resources they needed to survive.


In Europe, the Romans are credited with developing sophisticated roadways and aqueducts. As early as 300 B.C. they understood how important it was to be able to efficiently move things from one place to another. Roman roads moved not just goods, but armies as well. This infrastructure connected communities and many original roads still exist under modern roads today.

Water Transportation

Boats may be the oldest known form of man-made transportation. History suggests that about 45,000 years ago, someone had to travel by sea to get to Australia, and they must have used a boat of some kind. Islanders in 3000 B.C. were known to travel via two canoes lashed together, featuring sails and oars. Easter Island has a petroglyph that depicts what these double-hulled vessels looked like, and small remnants of some have been found in New Zealand and French Polynesia.


In 2600 B.C. humans not only navigated small waterways but created them as well. Canals were developed by ancient Indus Valley communities for travel and irrigation purposes. Mesopotamia also had canals built as early as 4000 B.C., and we know that water transport was the most prolific means of travel before the development of the railroad.


It wouldn’t be until much later, in the 13th century, that sailing ships called qāribs would be introduced and used by Arabs. Known as caravels by the Portuguese, these ships would later be used to explore Africa in the 15th century. Portugal also built man-of-war ships for the Royal Navy, and they were outfitted with additional masts to allow for more sails, and they also featured cannons for battle. The Chinese built their own version of sailing vessels known as treasure ships which explored the seas during the Ming dynasty. 


Large steamships wouldn’t grace the seas until the 1800s, and with the invention of the internal combustion engine, humans started to see ocean liners like the Titanic that would carry passengers around the world.

Air Travel

We know the Chinese used kites in 200 B.C., and that humans have long dreamed of flying. Leonardo DaVinci designed and tested numerous methods for air travel, but it wasn’t until the 17th and 18th centuries that humans found somewhat reliable ways to take flight.


With the understanding of hydrogen, humans could fill balloons for air travel. The earliest record of hot air balloon travel dates to 1783, when Parisians Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes traveled five miles.


Most of us are familiar with the Wright brothers, and their famous Kitty Hawk flight in 1903. It was the first heaver-than-air craft that took to the skies. The Wright brothers, and their predecessors, made further advances in flight possible, eventually leading to engine-powered planes throughout the 1900s.


Thanks to the industrial revolution, air travel would eventually advance to include jet engines in the mid-1900s.

Railway Travel

Trains seemingly never go out of style. From steam locomotives to electric and high-speed, they’ve taken goods and people across continents since the 1700s. Did you know subways were operating in London, England in 1863? About 30 years later the United States would also welcome underground trains, starting in Boston, Massachusetts. 


Trams, or streetcars, were first invented in the late 1800s and brought to the United States where they are probably most famous for navigating the streets of San Francisco. Even after the introduction of automobiles in the 1900s, travel by rail still maintained its presence. Eventually, Japan implemented the first high-speed trains in 1964, commonly known as a bullet train.

Road Travel

Although travel on some sort of path, trail, or road has probably existed for as long as humans have, road travel hit its stride after the invention of the automobile, and the implementation of the internal combustion engine. 


Automobiles evolved from passenger cars to trucks, busses, electric cars, hybrid cars, and even self-driving cars.  They’ve probably had the biggest glow-up when it comes to advancements in technology.


  • Walking
  • Riding domesticated animals
  • Sleds (5000 B.C.)
  • Wheeled carts (5000 B.C. pulled by humans or animals)
  • Paved roads (4000 B.C.)
  • Two-wheeled chariots (2800 B.C.)
  • Bicycles (1812)
  • First automobile (1886)

Transportation and the Industrial Revolution

The 18th century marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. With this time of engineering prosperity, humans capitalized on steam engines and developed additional methods of transportation. They also improved existing water and rail transport by adding engines to them.


Paved roads gained in popularity during the Industrial Revolution, making motorized transportation more practical and slightly more comfortable. Drivers and passengers in automobiles didn’t always have to worry about road muck being splashed on them over a dashboard or a windshield if their vehicle even had one.


Speaking of windshields, did you know humans have been manipulating glass for thousands of years? It started as a media for decorative elements, and eventually evolved into what we know it as today. You can learn more about the history of glass HERE.


Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways transportation evolved thanks to research and development throughout the 1800s.


1802 – Richard Trevithick designed the first steam-powered train. 

1812 – The first dual-cylinder locomotive engine was introduced.

1820s – John Loudon McAdam developed the macadam method of paving roads. Macadam was crushed stones, layered as paving material for roads. Because his paved roads were higher than the earth around them to allow water to drain away, they were called highways.

1820s – Also during this time, train travel becomes more commonplace in England.

1877 – Enrico Forlanini built the first steam-powered helicopter. It only flew for about 20 seconds, but successfully executed a vertical takeoff and a height of almost 43 feet.

1879 – Electric trains were introduced in Germany.

1886 – Motorized transport was developed in Germany.

1892 – Dr. Rudolf Diesel introduced the idea of a train running on diesel fuel, and he continued to develop this idea into the 1900s.

1902 – Radcliffe Road in Nottingham, England became the first road paved with tarmac, which was a form of McAdams’ macadam method, using tar as a binding agent for the crushed stones.

1908 – Ford Motors introduced the Model T in the United States.

Internal Combustion Engine

The internal combustion engine was developed in the late 19th century and made road travel much more efficient and convenient. Since steam engines were so heavy, they weren’t used in automobiles, so these new engines made a big difference. Internal combustion engines could also be used in trains, allowing them to run on diesel instead of steam. Unfortunately, efficient travel doesn’t always mean safe or inexpensive travel. Automobiles are involved in tens of thousands of accidents per year, causing injury and creating the need for legal representation. Regardless, this is clearly the most widespread and common form of motorized travel. 


Airplanes built in the 1920s benefitted from internal combustion engines as well. Being lighter than other types of engines prior to this time, they made it possible for the planes themselves to increase in size without being weighed down. This led to commercial aviation, which allowed planes to transport not just military personnel or cargo, but civilian passengers.


What types of advances do you think we’ll continue to see in transportation? We have jets that can travel thousands of miles before refueling, and vehicles that intuitively help us drive better. Drones are delivering our mail for us, and many cities have public transportation in the form of busses, trams, and high-speed trains. And, if you’re lucky, your bike has a motor to assist you on those long or uphill trips. Does it get any better than what we already have?


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