Event 77

Beginning 1802 AD

This is a replica of the first full scale working railway steam locomotive engine, built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. It is currently at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, England.
Credit: Photo by Chris55, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Starting in the early 1800’s, over the next 100 years a series of inventions absolutely transformed transportation of people and things. These innovations were steamships, the steam locomotive, automobiles, and airplanes.

Steam power had been important since the earlier 1700’s for pumps used in mining, and then by the late 1700’s to power machines in mills and factories. By the later 1700’s, several inventors in France, Great Britain, and America were experimenting with steamship designs, and early attempts were built in the later 1700’s, one lasting only 15 minutes and another running up a total of 2000 miles. By the early 1800’s, a workable design had been devised, and in 1802 the Charlotte Dundas successfully towed a heavy barge load to Glasgow, and a few years later in 1807 Robert Fulton launched his successful steamship service between New York and Albany, these successes launching steamship development over the next 180 years.

Metal railways had been in use since the 1700’s, powered by horses drawing carts or by stationery engines pulling carts by cables. When it first started in 1830, the B&O Railroad in fact used horses over its 13 miles of track, and the San Francisco cable cars are a vestige of these early steam engine-cable forms of rail transport. The steam locomotive combined these elements into a new phenomenon starting in 1804, when the first self-propelled steam locomotive was used at a Welsh iron mine.

Although this first locomotive proved too heavy and broke the tracks three times, both locomotives and railroad tracks were improved over the next 150 years of the use of steam engines in rail transport.
Real work on devising a self-propelled car got underway by the 1700’s, although the concept had been considered much earlier even by Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton.

Steam power was involved in early versions of the automobile, first by a French inventor named Nicolas Cugnot (who also is credited with the first traffic accident when he crashed into a stone wall!), who designed a vehicle to transport artillery for the French army in 1769. Various road carriages and stage coaches powered by steam continued throughout much of the 1800’s, but early experiments in an internal combustion engine (burning the fuel inside the engine) also started as early as 1807 (unsuccessfully) and 1823 (successfully). Early electric cars started appearing by the 1830’s in Scotland and then also in America in the 1840’s, but it was later in the 1800’s that French inventors devised better storage batteries (and a Belgian electric racing car set the land speed record in 1899 at 68 mph). By 1900, electric cars dominated in America, but were soon to start losing out to cars powered by an internal combustion engine.

Many inventors and engineers in America and Europe (including Otto, Benz, and Daimler in Germany) had been experimenting with internal combustion engines throughout the 1800’s, gasoline-powered cars began to take off. Car companies such as Peuguot formed in 1891 in France and Olds and Ford in the early 1900’s America. Such internal combustion engines eventually took over and replaced electric cars by the 1920’s, especially after oil discoveries in Texas and Henry Ford’s assembly line vehicles made these cars more affordable to own and run, and a better system of roads made for longer trips, making the shorter-range electric cars less desirable.

Once again, Leonardo da Vinci was eerily prescient or far-sighted – by the later 1400’s, his notebooks have numerous sketches and designs for flying machines. By the late 1700’s, hot air balloons were taking off (the first in 1783 in France), and early concepts of a fixed wing airplane were emerging. By the early 1800’s, a glider was invented capable of just short hops, and then longer propeller-driven gliders were made in the 1840’s and 1850’s. By the later 1800’s, experiments were done with steam-powered aircraft, and the discovery made of cambered wings that give lift. Finally, the Wright brothers, initially inspired and intrigued by a rubber-band powered helicopter their father brought home to them from a business trip, went to work on the problem. In 1900 to 1902, they conducted experimental flights with gliders with roll, pitch and yaw controls, and in 1903, conducted the 1st sustained flight in a gasoline engine powered propeller airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.


It is truly difficult to imagine a world without cars or airplanes, at least for most of us living in industrialized countries. Although steam power is not as important as it once was, it was formative in the early days of transportation and was critical in getting people and goods across the continent (steam locomotives) and over the seas (steamships) for almost a century and a half. Railroad played an important role in the settling of much of America by Europeans, particularly west of the Mississippi.


This webpage is about railroad history from the beginning, with pictures and lots of information.

This is about the  beginning of the railroad system.

The airplane timeline, all about the history of airplanes.

This is a picture slideshow video of the History of Transportation.

Thi is a very brief animated YouTube video about the history of transportation.

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