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Transportation Technology Videos

Transportation Technology

All transportation depends on technology, whether it’s the wheel, the jet engine, or the computer chip. Transportation is not just technology—it’s a system of technology, people, energy, money, and more—but advances in technology play a key role in shaping transportation systems, which in turn help to shape our lives, landscapes, and culture.

Because transportation is so important to commerce, because—literally and figuratively—so much is riding on it, it has been the focus of an enormous amount of inventive activity. Corporations have invested billions of dollars in improved technology. Individuals have sought their fortunes in breakthroughs big and small.

Transportation technology includes many related areas. Motive power, of course, is one key technology. Early vehicles were pulled by human or animal power. Steam engines powered locomotives and ships in the ninetheenth century. The internal-combustion engine was invented in the 1880s and used almost immediately in cars and trucks. The jet engine was invented in the 1940s. Each of these inventions was improved by thousands of additional innovations. But less-obvious technologies also made transportation cheaper and faster. Manufacturing innovations, from Baldwin Locomotive Works’ record-keeping systems to Henry Ford’s assembly line to the Toyota system of just-in-time inventory, made personal transportation affordable.

Innovations in control systems were also essential. Railroads invented new management techniques as well as switching and communications systems to keep the trains on track and on time. Highway engineers developed traffic lights, interchanges, and a thousand other design and control systems to keep traffic moving.

It’s impossible, in the space of an exhibition or website, to describe even a small percentage of the innovations in transportation technology. But take a look at these videos—or just read the scripts—for a quick overview of transportation technology.

Launch Video
An overview of transportation technology. Produced by the History Channel in collaboration with the National Museum of American History.
Isaac Dripps, the mechanic who assembled the John Bull in 1831, drew this picture of how it looked at that date from memory in 1887.
Isaac Dripps, the mechanic who assembled the John Bull in 1831, drew this picture of how it looked at that date from memory in 1887.

America’s earliest inhabitants and its new settlers traveled under their own steam, or harnessed the power of nature or animals to move from place to place. But the use of steam power in transportation in the early 19th century allowed people to transcend nature’s limits—to go faster, and further, and carry more than ever before.

Inventors and entrepreneurs alike tinkered with steam engines, looking for ways to use steam power to move passengers and cargo. Robert Fulton launched the first commercially successful steamboat service on the Hudson River in 1807. In a few years, steamboats were churning their way up and down American rivers and along the coasts carrying thousands of passengers and tons of cargo.

By the middle of the century, ships crossing the oceans were also powered by steam, drastically reducing travel time. A journey that would have taken more than 5 weeks in 1800, took 18 days in mid-century and only 5 days by its end.

The first commercial railroads began operating in the 1830’s. American inventors modified British designs, devising more efficient and faster locomotives. Engineers built bridges, and tunnels, and laid tens of thousands of miles of track. By 1890, railroads hauled more than half a billion passengers and over 690 million tons of cargo.

Steam locomotives were lauded as the best and most powerful means of transport between cities and over long distances. Within cities, however, they were seen as dangerous and were often banned by municipal authorities. Instead, carriages and streetcars transported residents around the city.

By the end of the 19th century, steam engines in the bellies of ships and locomotives had changed the landscape and the lives of Americans.

But it would not be long before a new kind of engine and a new mode of transport would capture the hearts and minds of farmer and city-dweller alike.

Launch Video
An overview of transportation technology. Produced by the History Channel in collaboration with the National Museum of American History.
Steam engine, USLHS tender Oak
Steam engine, USLHS tender Oak

In the first half of the century, inventors harnessed new kinds of power to both old and new kinds of transportation. Electric motors and internal combustion engines powered boats, trolleys, trains, automobiles and airplanes.

Most railroad locomotives still ran on steam, but in the 1920s, railroads began to experiment with other forms of power. Some electrified their tracks and locomotives and others introduced diesel engines, ultimately allowing trains to move more freight with fewer workers.

On the ocean, ships became more efficient as oil replaced coal for fuel. And in coastal and inland waters, commercial fishing boats and pleasure craft took off powered by new internal combustion engines.

Early versions of the automobile were fueled by steam and electricity, as well as gasoline. But two factors helped push gasoline-powered cars to the head of the pack: internal combustion engines were lighter and more efficient than their steam counterparts, and new oil discoveries meant a steady and bountiful supply of cheap gasoline. These new vehicles were primitive at first-they had to be cranked to start and many of the features we take for granted such as lights and turn signals weren’t included in the original package. After 1919, the self-starting engine made automobiles easier to use. And in the 1920’s all-weather travel became possible when closed cars became the norm and features such as heaters were added.

The internal combustion engine not only propelled people down the road, it sent them skyward as well. Thanks to a homemade engine and two hand carved propellers, Orville Wright took the first flight in 1903-he was airborne for 12 seconds. Five years later, with a new and improved plane, he and his brother Wilbur flew for over an hour. In the next fifty years, advances in aeronautical design and piston engines made it possible for pilots to fly higher, faster and farther.

Launch Video
An overview of transportation technology. Produced by the History Channel in collaboration with the National Museum of American History.
Peterbilt conventional tractor, 1984
Peterbilt conventional tractor, 1984

After World War II, futurists imagined carplanes in every garage, mail delivered by rocket, and personal transporters that could beam us across town. But that future never happened. The cars, planes, trains, and ships of 2000 don’t look too different from the ones we saw in 1950. But behind the scenes-in the cockpit and bridge, in the control tower and under the hood nearly everything has changed.

The jet engine took planes to new heights, providing a smoother and faster ride. The diesel engine replaced the steam engine in trains. And in cars, new electronic devices controlled ignition, combustion, and exhaust.

But more than mechanical wizardry, it was computers that transformed transportation in the late 20th century. In cars, they controlled the transmission, temperature and even helped drivers apply the brakes. Advanced computer systems in air traffic control tracked 32,000 flights per day. They helped control trains and urban mass transit systems. Radar and new navigational technologies made ship travel safer. Dispatchers managed more trucks with increased efficiency. Computers hooked into satellite systems kept track of every barge, every train, every truck-and even every package in the system.

As for the future, who knows what it holds. Perhaps rocketships and transporters to beam us across town. What is clear is technology will continue to change transportation and transportation will continue to change our lives.

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