The Birthplace Of The Wheel
Built For Military Or Administrative Reasons
Royal Mail Coaches
Dickens Embraced Railroads
Express d'Orient
Railway Fever
The World's First Passenger Airline
Uniquely German Technology
Water-based Transportation
Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
  A Little Help Finding Your Way Around
Contact Us
Parting Shots | Google Search
  Oneliners, Stories, etc.
Who We Are


Major Transport

The first of the new transport technologies was not the wheel but the provision of power. Indeed, after the creation and widespread application of footpaths, the world's second major transport development was the use of animals, initially as beasts of burden and subsequently for pulling plows, sleds, carts, wagons, and carriages.

The domestication of large animals probably occurred about 7000 B.C., initially to provide humans with a secure source of food. Although the use of animals to provide transport power was a convenient secondary development, for most of its history the world's roadway system has operated with domesticated animals as its sole source of motive power. Cattle, onagers, donkeys, asses, dogs, goats, horses, mules, camels, elephants, buffaloes, llamas, reindeer, yaks, and, of course, humans are some of the better known species that have found useful transport employment.

Until the nineteenth century most people rarely traveled more than a day's walk from their home, and the spacing of many settlements grew around this distance. At the best, walkers could only manage between 9 and 25 miles in a day, depending on need and burden, whereas a marching army under good conditions would expect to travel at least 80 km. The very occasional long-distance trip was predominantly made on foot or horseback; until the fifteenth century, wheeled vehicles were rarely used for personal travel.

For speed, initial reliance was placed on fleet-footed runners, epitomized by the young Greek who in 490 B.C. brought the news of Greek victory at the Bay of Marathon to Athens some 23 miles distant, and then fell dead. Indeed, the Greeks were able to send messages at 125 miles/day by using runners in a relay system. Similar speeds were reached by North American Indians running along the Iroquois Trail. The foot-travel record was probably held by the Incas, who developed a system that was able to transmit messages at 248 miles/day by using fast runners over 1.5 mile stages, suggesting that the runners were achieving about 9 miles/h (i.e., 6-minute miles) and running stages by day and night.

Footposts became common in seventeenth-century Europe, and it was believed that a good "footman" could outdistance a horse after seven or eight days. Irish footmen were particularly well regarded, traveling up to 70 miles/day in emergencies.

Horse riding probably began in Russia in about 3000 B.C. and was introduced into Mesopotamia in 2000 B.C. It gained popularity at a slow pace and only began to appear with some frequency after 1000 B.C. The horse was initially used primarily for war rather than for transport - the Assyrians introduced the first cavalry force in 900 B.C. However, in the absence of stirrup or saddle, riders were forced to cling to their horse through the pressure of their knees. Little leverage could be gained for propelling weaponry, so the chariot remained the preferred fighting machine. Metal bits were in use by this time and, by 500 B.C., both bits and horses had improved to such an extent that the horse began to supplant charioteering as a means of both elite personal travel and warfare. Throughout this riding period the horse remained a quite expensive animal, and most riders traveled on the much cheaper donkey and mule.

The next stages in the development of horse riding were the stirrup and the saddle. Neither technology spread rapidly. The stirrup was probably developed in India in about 200 B.C. and allowed horse and rider to act as one. Stirrups arrived in Europe via the barbarians in about A.D. 700, well after the Romans, and sounded the death knell to the chariot so prevalent in Roman land transport. Saddles were not in use in Europe until about A.D. 200. Horseshoes, also uncommon in Roman times, became widespread in about A.D. 700.

A single horse and rider could routinely manage about 40 to 50 miles/day. To extend this capacity meant using horses in stages, and this in turn required the establishment of post houses and stables, under the control of a postmaster, where tired horses could be rested and fresh ones obtained. Using teams of horses and riders, the Persians of King Cyrus the Great in about 550 B.C. achieved 150 miles/day on their exclusive royal roadway.

The Romans and the Chinese also used this method, with post houses at spacings of about 12 miles and overnight lodging houses at 40 miles or so. These distances became common town spacings as settlements grew around both the post houses and the lodging houses. Average speeds in the systems were about 6 miles/h or 124 miles/day for continuous travel. The official speed record in Roman times was about 186 miles/day, established by Emperor Tiberius between Germany and Lyon. The Chinese record was 270 miles/day. The Roman post house system began to decline as the empire aged and as the servicing of the system changed from one of laissez-faire private enterprise to an unpopular series of obligations and regulations that only added to the concurrent road-maintenance burden.

Nevertheless, long-distance communications continued after the Romans. News of King Richard the Lion-Hearted's capture in Austria in 1192 traveled across Europe at about 186 miles/week or 25 miles/day, whereas ordinary travel was averaging 124 miles/week. By the end of the twelfth century, a messenger system had developed to service the needs of students moving in and out of Paris. It was operated by the University of Paris between 1314 and 1598 and was the incentive for Louis XI to establish an official system - Couriers de France - in 1464. The post houses established for the Couriers were still about 12 miles apart, and four stages were traveled in a typical day.

Finally, more than a millennium after the demise of the Roman post system, a master of posts was appointed in England in 1509. In 1603, news of Queen Elizabeth's death was carried by post horses over almost 700 km in what was then considered to be the exceptional speed of 435 miles/day - so exceptional, in fact, that the rider, Sir Robert Cary, was rewarded by James I with a peerage. At the other extreme, Thomas Macaulay noted that news of the queen's death did not reach some parts of Devon until after the long period of mourning was over. In 1834 Robert Peel returned from Rome to London to take over the British prime ministership and averaged 75 miles/day, predominantly along old Roman routes.

In 1860 the famed pony express in the United States carried its mail over about 2,000 miles, from Missouri to California, approximately following the Oregon Trail. The riders traveled at 200 miles/day, changing mounts at post houses spaced every 6 to 20 miles. The pony express operated for only eighteen months before it was made redundant by the transcontinental telegraph.

Humans have also been used as teams of bearers to carry other humans. Commonly, the bearers shoulder two longitudinal shafts on which the passenger is supported. The most notable examples of the technique are the Elizabethan sedan chair, the Roman litter, and the Chinese palanquin. The sedan chair is an elaborate enclosed chair carried between two longitudinal shafts and was named after the French town of Sedan where it was first made. Although no faster than walking or coach travel, it was more comfortable and allowed the occupant to totally escape the filth of the street. Chairs were quite popular, and some 400 were operating in London in 1750. They went out of fashion in the early 1800s, and their last use in Europe was in Vienna where, as tragsessel, they were on hire until 1888. Chairs remained common in the East until well into the twentieth century. About 900 were operating in Hong Kong in 1916, and many were still in use there and in mainland China during the 1950s. The Japanese used a tiny house suspended from a single pole, which was called a Norimon.

The litter and palanquin were couchlike or even bedlike, and the palanquin was covered and curtained. In 1600 Queen Elizabeth was carried through London at above head height in an elegant open litter cum chair. For practical reasons, litters were sometimes carried by horses or mules, rather than by humans.

When freight first had to be moved, human hands, shoulders, hips, and heads were all gainfully employed. When the capacity of the unaided human was exceeded, the solid stick would have been the obvious tool to use, first to transfer the load to the shoulders and then to allow it to be shared as a yoke between two people. For less coherent loads, the technology would have expanded to include wicker baskets hung from the shoulders by rope or carried on the head, more often than not on the female head. Such people-powered freight techniques are still in quite effective use today in parts of Asia and Africa. African porters could carry 55 pounds for 16 miles/day. For shorter distances, loads of about half body weight are common, and peak loads over very short distances can exceed 385 pounds. The Chinese used laborers carrying slings and bamboo poles to move loads of up to a ton distributed at about 55 pounds per bearer.

When the loads to be carried demanded greater strength or power than could be supplied by humans, the humans innovated by using their domesticated feed animals as beasts of burden. The wicker baskets were transferred from human shoulders to the backs of cattle to produce the first pack animals.

Pack transport - or summage - took a step forward in about 3500 B.C. when the domesticated donkey came out of Africa. It was admirably suited for the task at hand. From that time forward the pack animal has been an unobtrusive but vital part of our transport operations. There are written records from 2000 B.C. of organized pack animal convoys operating in the Middle East.

The early packhorse could carry less than 110 pounds in two pannier baskets. By the end of the Middle Ages, breeding and loading improvements meant that a packhorse could carry a load of about 275 pounds, or a third of its body weight, for up to 15 miles. Similarly, donkeys could carry about 165 pounds, mules 220 pounds, and camels 385 pounds. Despite this improvement, the role of the packhorse was clearly limited by its load capacity. To overcome this restriction, long strings, or drifts, of nine to fifty packhorses tied tail to nose worked many regular freight routes, with regular packhorse services operating between London and the north from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century.

Road maintenance efforts that did occur during this period were often devoted to packhorse paths beside the road itself. The narrow width meant that it was often practical to raise the path above the mud and pave it with flagstones. Over time, some paths came to resemble embankments. By the seventeenth century, packhorse operations had grown to such an extent that there were many stone-paved paths with their own bridges, particularly in the north of England where an extensive system existed. Most of the associated packhorse bridges were built between 1660 and 1740. Their entrances were often guarded by posts to deter their use by carts, and their parapets were low enough to permit the panniers to protrude over each side.

In his famous seventeenth-century legal text, Edward Coke saw packhorse ways playing a major role in a distinct hierarchy of roads, declaring that "there be three kinds of wayes whereof you shall reade in our ancient bookes. First a foot way .. and this was the first way. The second is a foot way and horse way . . . and this is vulgarly called a packe and prime way because it is both a foot way, which was the first or prime way, and a packe or drift way also. The third . . . contains the other two, and also a cartway" (1628).

Packhorses were used by many armies. The British army used them extensively in the wars it waged with the French and the Indians in North America. The preexisting Indian trails were well able to accommodate strings of packhorses, and the mode subsequently became a major commercial operation during the eighteenth century, lasting until better roads and wagons arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Packhorse transport reached its European zenith in about 1750, after which the canal system began to eat into the trade. Numbers dropped even further with the advent of the railways, although some were still working in Yorkshire in 1914.

Given the simplicity of pack animal operations and the relative complexity of the technologies of harnessing, cart building, and roadmaking, it is not surprising that through much of human history the pack animal walking on narrow footways and carrying its load in containers simply slung from its back has been a major means of land transport. In addition, the relative economics of pack transport often improved as the distance to be moved increased.

Nevertheless, the major movement of freight in the last millennium has been by cartage rather than by summage, due mainly to the pack animal's low 110 pounds load capacity. This meant that about twelve packhorses were needed to carry the same load as a single horse and cart. Many freight needs were left unsatisfied. Agrarian society had to move produce from fields to storehouses and processing areas and, later, to market. This demand could not be met by simply carrying the load on an animal's back. A breakthrough in freight technology was required.

The potential for a breakthrough arose in about 5000 B.C. when the castration of domesticated cattle was found to produce an excellent power source in the ox, which could be made to haul horizontal forces between four and ten times greater than the vertical forces that it could carry on its back. This development was probably driven more by the needs of agriculture than of transport. Indeed, the first hauled device was probably the plow, beginning as a hooked branch or log that oxen pulled through the earth. For both power and ease of harnessing, oxen worked in pairs, connected to either side of the plow log by a wooden crossbar yoke. Oxen pull from a hump at the back of the neck and have prominent shoulders, so they were relatively easy to harness in this fashion.

It would not have been long before the cattle-harnessing technology developed for plowing led to the thought that the same harness and crossbar yoke coupled to two dragged logs, rather than to one plow, would provide a platform for load carrying. Two such devices are the travois and the slide car, in both of which the front of the load platform is carried on the animal's back and the rear slides along the ground. In the travois, or V, the hauler - human or beast - drags the forked branch of a tree or two separate branches or poles with their far ends tied together. The freight spans between the two branches near midlength. Such devices have been widely used, by North American Indians for example, and are still in use in rugged parts of Scotland. In the slide car the two poles are parallel.

The next development was the hauled, sliding sled, which was a flat platform that was dragged along the ground. Compared with the travois and slide car, the sled required a more elaborate construction and a new type of harness. However, if it operated over smooth surfaces with a friction coefficient of under 0.10, it could carry a greater load than could the travois, slide car, or packhorse. The sled is still used for freight transport in various parts of the world. The word sledge, incidentally, covers both the dry-land sled and the sleigh used on snow and ice. Sleighs require very little haulage force and therefore need a simpler technology and less power, as reflected in the common use of dog teams. There is evidence of sleighs in use in 6000 B.C. and sleds in 5000 B.C.

Thus, by about 5000 B.C. domesticated cattle had become the original workhorses of the road. The use of the ox for dragging and the donkey and horse for carrying and then for riding provided the first quantum leap in human travel times and capacities. Because the ridden horse, horse litter, loaded packhorse, and harnessed, dragging ox required larger horizontal and vertical clearances than did people on foot, some path development in the form of bridle paths and trackways was necessary to take advantage of these new sources of motive power.

top of page
back a page
The Birthplace Of The Wheel | Built For Military Or Administrative Reasons | Royal Mail Coaches | Dickens Embraced Railroads | Express d'Orient | Railway Fever | The World's First Passenger Airline | Uniquely German Technology | Water-based Transportation | Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
  Take Me To:
All Stories Begin With Once Upon A Time [Home]
The Adventures Of Man | Ancient Civilizations | The Age of Discovery | It's Too Early To Tell | Effective Communication | World Famous | World Infamous | The Land of Israel | Outstanding Building Achievements | Politics Comes From Polis, The Greek For City State | Religion And Mythology | The Result Of Science | The Sheer Spectacle | Major Transport | The Great Warrior, Would Be Victorious | The Changeling In The Cradle Was War | Rome And Carthage: Punic Wars | The Ravages Of Wars | Battles Win Wars | Right Of War | Queen Victoria's Wars 1837-1901 | Civil War | Warrior Cultures | Major Wars
Questions? Anything Not Work? Not Look Right? My Policy Is To Blame The Computer.
Oneliners, Stories, etc. | About Once Upon A Time | Site Navigation | Parting Shots | Google Search
My Other Sites: Cruisin' - A Little Drag Racin', Nostalgia And My Favorite Rides | The Eerie Side Of Things | It's An Enigma | That"s Entertainment | Just For The Fun Of It | Gender Wars | Golf And Other Non-Contact Sports | JCS Group, Inc., A little business... A little fun... | John Wayne: American, The Movies And The Old West | Something About Everything Military | The Spell Of The West | Once Upon A Time | By The People, For The People | Something About Everything Racin' | Baseball and Other Contact Sports | The St. Louis Blues At The Arena | What? Strange? Peculiar? Maybe.