A History of Transport

By Tim Lambert


The first form of transport was, of course, the human foot! However, people eventually learned to use animals for transport. Donkeys and horses were probably domesticated between 4,000 and 3,000 BC (obviously the exact date is not known). Camels were domesticated slightly later between 3,000 and 2,000 BC.

Meanwhile, in about 3,500 BC the wheel was invented in what is now Iraq. At first, wheels were made of solid pieces of wood lashed together to form a circle but after 2,000 BC they were made with spokes.

The earliest boats were dugout canoes. People lit a fire on a big log then put it out and dug out the burned wood.

About 3,100 BC the Egyptians invented the sailing boat. They were made of bundles of papyrus reeds tied together. They had simple square sails made of sheets of papyrus or later of linen. However, the sail could only be used when sailing in one direction. When travelling against the wind the boat had to be rowed.

About 2,700 BC the Egyptians began using wooden ships for trade by sea. Early ships were steered by a long oar.

The Romans are famous for the network of roads they built across the Empire. Roman legionaries built them so the Roman army could march from one part of the empire to another quickly. Rich people traveled by horse or on long journeys by covered wagon. Sometimes they were carried in litters (seats between two long poles).

Transport by water was also important to the Romans. They built large merchant ships called cortia, which could carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo.

Roman ships had a single main mast, which carried a rectangular sail, although some ships also had small sails at the bow and stern. Roman ships did not have rudders. Instead, they were steered by oars. The Romans also built lighthouses to aid shipping.


After the fall of Rome transport became more primitive. Roads in Europe returned to being simple dirt tracks, which turned to mud in the Winter. In the Middle Ages, rich people sometimes traveled in covered wagons. They must have been very uncomfortable as they did not have suspension and the roads were bumpy and rutted. Others traveled on a box between two poles. Two horses, one in front and one behind carried it. They were trained to walk at the same pace.

However, at sea, several useful inventions were made. By the 12th century, Europeans had learned to use a compass. Also in the 12th century, Europeans invented the rudder. (The Chinese independently invented it centuries before). Rudders made ships much easier to steer. Furthermore, Medieval shipbuilding became far more advanced and by the 15th century, ships were made with 3 masts.

TRANSPORT 1500-1800

In Tudor times transport was still slow and uncomfortable. Roads were still just dirt tracks. Men were supposed, by law, to spend several days repairing the local roads but it is unlikely they did much good! People traveled by horse. You could either ride your own or you could hire a horse.

In Tudor times you would be lucky if you could travel 50 or 60 kilometers a day. It normally took a week to travel from London to Plymouth. However rich people deliberately traveled slowly. They felt it was undignified to hurry and they took their time.

Goods were sometimes transported by packhorses (horses with bags on their sides). Also, carriers with covered wagons carried goods and sometimes passengers. However when possible people preferred to transport goods by water. All around England, there was a ‘coastal trade’. Goods from one part of the country, such as coal, were taken by sea to other parts.

From the middle of the 17th century stagecoaches ran regularly between the major towns. However, they were very expensive and they must have been very uncomfortable without springs on rough roads. There was also the danger of highwaymen.

In 1663 the first Turnpike roads opened. You had to pay to use them. Meanwhile, in towns, wealthy people were carried in sedan chairs.

Transport was greatly improved during the 18th century. Groups of rich men formed turnpike trusts. Acts of Parliament gave them the right to improve and maintain certain roads. Travelers had to pay tolls to use them. The first turnpikes were created as early as 1663 but they became far more common in the 18th century.

Transporting goods was also made much easier by digging canals. In the early 18th century goods were often transported by packhorse. Moving heavy goods was very expensive. However, in 1759 the Duke of Bridgewater decided to build a canal to bring coal from his estate at Worsley to Manchester. He employed an engineer called James Brindley. When it was completed the Bridgewater Canal halved the price of coal in Manchester. Many more canals were dug in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. They played a major role in the industrial revolution by making it cheaper to transport goods.

Meanwhile, in France, the Montgolfier brothers invented the hot air balloon in 1783. The hydrogen balloon was also invented in 1783. In 1785 two men, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries flew over the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon.

It’s debatable which man invented the lifeboat. Lionel Lukin invented an unsinkable boat in 1785. But the first purpose-built lifeboat was built in South Shields, England in 1789 by Henry Greathead.


In the mid-19th century, transport was revolutionized by railways. They made travel much faster. (They also removed the danger of highwaymen). The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. However, the first major railway was from Liverpool to Manchester. It opened in 1830. In the 1840s there was a huge boom in building railways and most towns in Britain were connected. In the late 19th century many branch lines were built connecting many villages.

Early steam train

The first underground railway in Britain was built in London in 1863. The carriages were pulled by steam trains. The first electric underground trains began running in London in 1890. The Central Line opened in 1900. The Bakerloo Line and the Piccadilly Line both opened in 1906. Meanwhile, the Paris Metro opened in 1900.

From 1829 horse-drawn omnibuses began running in London. They soon followed in other towns. In the 1860s and 1870s, horse-drawn trams began running in many towns.

Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler made the first cars in 1885 and 1886. The motorbike was patented in 1885. Also in the 1880s, the safety bicycle was invented and cycling soon became a popular hobby.

Meanwhile at sea 19th-century transportation was revolutionized by the steamship. By 1815 steamships were crossing the English Channel. The Savannah became the first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1819. Furthermore, it used to take several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Then in 1838, a steamship called the Sirius made the journey in 19 days. However steam did not completely replace sail until the end of the 19th century when the steam turbine was used on ships.


Transportation greatly improved during the 20th century. Although the first cars appeared at the end of the 19th century after the First World War they became cheaper and more common. However, in 1940 only about one in 10 families in Britain owned a car. They increased in number after World War II. By 1959 32% of households owned a car. Yet cars only became common in the 1960s. By the 1970s the majority of families owned one.

In 1903 a speed limit of 20 MPH was introduced in Britain. It was abolished in 1930. However, in 1934 a speed limit of 30 MPH in built-up areas was introduced. The first electric traffic lights were invented in the USA in 1914. In Britain, the first electric traffic lights were installed in 1928. Insurance for motorists was made compulsory in 1931. The first Highway Code was published in 1931. A driving test was introduced in 1934. Also in 1934, Percy Shaw invented the cat’s eye. Meanwhile, in Britain, the AA was formed in 1905.

The parking meter was invented by an American called Carlton Magee. The first ones were installed in the USA in 1935. The first ones in Britain were installed in 1958.

Parking metre

Then in 1959, a Swede named Nils Bohlin developed the three-point seat belt. In 1983 wearing a seat belt was made compulsory in Britain. Wheel clamps were introduced to Britain in 1983 and speed cameras in 1992.

Meanwhile in Britain in 1936 Belisha Beacons were introduced to make road crossing safer. The first zebra crossing was introduced in 1949. In Britain Lollipop men and women followed in 1953. The modern pelican crossing was introduced in 1969.

In 1931 an American called Rolla N. Harger invented the first breathalyzer. It was first used in Indianapolis USA in 1939. In Britain, double yellow lines at the sides of the roads meaning no parking were introduced in 1958.

Meanwhile, in the late 19th century, horse-drawn trams ran in many towns in Britain. At the beginning of the 20th century, they were electrified. However, in most towns, trams were phased out in the 1930s. They gave way to buses, either motor buses or trolleybuses, which ran on overhead wires. The trolleybuses, in turn, were phased out in the 1950s. Ironically at the end of the 20th century, some cities re-introduced light railways.

In the mid-20th century, there was a large network of branch railways in Britain. However, in 1963 a minister called Dr. Beeching closed many of them. Christopher Cockerell patented the hovercraft in 1955, In 1959 a hovercraft crossed the English Channel.

The first hovercraft passenger service began in 1962.

Meanwhile, a completely new form of transport began. In 1919 planes began carrying passengers between London and Paris. (The first plane flight in Britain was made in 1908). The first passenger jet service began in 1952.

However, in the early 20th century flight was a luxury few people could afford. Furthermore, only a small minority could afford foreign travel. Foreign holidays only became common in the 1960s.

The Boeing 747, the first ‘Jumbo jet’ was introduced in 1970 and The Channel Tunnel opened in 1994.

The next step in transport will probably be commercial suborbital space flight. At the moment it is still in the future and at first, it will inevitably be very expensive but it will eventually become cheap enough for ordinary people to afford.

Last Revised 2024