by Daniel Sweeny

The technologies considered in this issue are supposed to bring about a revolution in transportation, replacing and displacing older energy sources and energy conversion techniques, and presumably bringing new economic entities into play.  In addition, it is to be hoped, they will provide the benefits of mass rapid transportation to all of the inhabitants of the globe without the heavy costs in environmental degradation associated with traditional fossil fuels and the legacy transportation systems they underlie.

As may be seen in the other articles in this issue which deal with specific new energy technologies, the path toward a sustainable energy future in transportation is uncertain and will almost certainly prove difficult.  And in attempting to see past these uncertainties to the business opportunities that surely await entrepreneurs and investors, it might be well for us to consider the transportation revolutions of the past to determine if any clue to the future of mechanized transportation might be divined from the ways in which human populations confronted, resisted, and ultimately embraced what were then fundamentally new modes of travel.

Comes a Horseman

The first transportation revolution occurred so very long ago that all memory of it is lost to history, and that it occurred at all can only be gleaned from the archaeological record 4500 BC or perhaps slightly earlier:  a bit over five thousand years following the last retreat of the glaciers and the end of the Ice Age.  The place was the steppes of Russia which was then home to vast herds of antelope and wild horses.

Humans lived on the fringes of the steppes, stalking the herds with bow and arrow, killing occasional stragglers, but unable to live by hunting alone.  Already these communities had taken up agricultural pursuits and only hunted when the seasonal migrations of the herds brought them into close proximity with human settlements.

How it happened, one can only speculate.  Perhaps it was a ritual, a game, a rite of passage or a feat of valor, but someone captured a horse—perhaps with lassos or snares—and brought it bound but unhurt into an encampment.  The horse was then mounted by some intrepid youth who sought to maintain his seat for as long as possible.  At some point a horse was broken and induced to accept a human rider and horses were ridden thereafter for ceremonial reasons for some period of time.  But at some further point, still well before 4,000 BC, bits and bridles were invented in Southern Russia and whole populations suddenly became mounted and began to follow the herds and to live off them.

 Shortly after the first appearance of bridles in the archaeological record, the towns of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the lands to the immediate south of the Russian steppes, began to acquire walls.   Some have suspected that raiding parties from the steppes necessitated those walls.  It may be that the first transportation revolution occasioned one of the first social revolutions, the coming of endemic warfare involving whole populations.

 That this all happened rather suddenly we can infer from the experience of the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World who began riding horses almost from the moment of the first Spanish settlement.   One day a tribe was afoot and settled, the next day its members were mounted nomads—a transportation revolution as rapid as any that has occurred in modern times.  In most cases in the transition of a tribe from sedentary agriculture to a nomadism based on hunting, that same tribe would become increasingly warlike, and would regard settled populations much as it did the herds of herbivores on which it fed.  As in the case of the inhabitants of the Eurasian steppes, horseback riding and the arts of war developed in parallel.

 This first transportation from pedestrian to equestrian proved as momentous as any that followed, perhaps more momentous.  The equestrian acquired new means of making a livelihood, a new access to resources natural and manmade, and, equally important, a new outlook.  A man on horseback is traditionally an aristocrat and never a slave or an underling.  In many cases he is also a warrior.  At the end of the New Stone Age a man who could annihilate distance could also with considerable ease annihilate his fellow man.

 Even this earliest example of a transportation revolution indicates several salient characteristics of all such revolutions.  First of all, they inevitably have a social dimension.  New technology always has transformational effects upon society.  Second, they tend to be rapid.  And third, in many cases they are viral, spreading spontaneously through a susceptible social grouping.

 A Second Revolution

 Wheeled vehicles appeared about five thousand years ago in three separate places, Mesopotamia, Northern India, and China, probably as the result of independent invention.  Donkeys and cattle as well as horses drew these first wagons, and they were used to transport goods as well as people, but primarily goods, it would appear.  In India at around the same time yet another riding animal became domesticated, the Indian elephant.

Interestingly, in Egypt, an almost equally ancient civilization, both wheeled vehicles and draft animals were almost unknown until the second millennium B.C.  Egypt had its own transportation revolution, but that involved watercraft not carts, and draft animals.

 How ox carts and donkey carts figured in the economies of the first civilizations can only be guessed.  We might imagine that they were essentially tools of production rather than a true transportation system, used to bring building materials and grain into towns rather than to facilitate trade and the transport of persons over long distances.  A fit individual could walk as fast or faster as cart could proceed over rough ground, and so the first wheeled horse or donkey drawn vehicles were in no sense equivalents to the horse as a mode of human transportation, and the expense of overland transport involving beasts of burden and wheeled vehicles as always been such as to limit its role in commerce. 

 Carriages would improve over time over the course of the millennia, but nothing fundamental would change in animal transport for nearly the entirety of that five thousand year span.  With one exception.

 At some time thousands of years before the present, though not so far back as in the case of horses, camels were domesticated.  For at least half of that period following their initial domestication, domestic camels were uncommon and insignificant.  Then, toward the end of the Roman Empire, the inhabitants of the lands of the Middle East from Morocco to India began to appreciate the fact that camels could carry loads exceeding 500 lbs. and could transport those loads up to thirty miles in a single day.  When that realization became widespread, wheeled traffic almost disappeared in the Middle East.  Against the brute strength of the camel the wheeled horse cart on a rough road held no advantage.

 Why did camel transport take so long to develop?  Again, we can’t know with absolute certainty, but we can suggest that institutionally the Middle East wasn’t ready for it until as recently as 2000 years ago.  We know that in Palmyria the Semitic trading kingdom in what is now Iraq an institution resembling the modern corporation arose around the first century A.D. and that modern banking practices emerged at the same time.  At the same time, the state itself raised troops to protect caravans and policed paths through the desert.  In this context of liquid capital and joint investment, the freight bearing capabilities of the camel became meaningful.

 Here we discern a second principle applying to true transportation revolutions.  They require social and political institutions that will foster them and they must conduce to the profit of enterprising individuals.  Transportation revolutions are always built upon risk taking, but some means of minimizing risk must be present as well.

 Revolution at Sea

 The first ships of which we have records were built in ancient Egypt even before the founding of the first Dynasty just prior to 3000 BC.  Before there were ships in Egypt there were barges and small watercraft.

Barges were undoubtedly used to transport grain to be stored in city granaries and building materials to be used in public works, while very early ships were used for trade in both the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea.  We do not know if ships played any major role in transporting people.  What we do know is that the Egyptian state moved vast numbers of workers over considerable distances to work on both irrigation projects and public monuments.  Egypt was the first state to concentrate human resources though it was not the first hydraulic civilization, i.e. one based upon agriculture supported by massive irrigation projects.

 After Egypt other civilizations further developed ships, and these included the civilizations of Crete, Phoenicia, and later Greece.  These ships were undoubtedly more advanced than those of Egypt, but scarcely revolutionary.  A further revolution in water transport would be a long time in coming.  Three thousand years after the first appearance of ships in Egypt, to be precise.

Old Transportation Technologies and Radically New Ideas – the Roman Experience

Rome, even more than Egypt, achieved extreme concentrations of human resources.  It also achieved considerable concentrations of natural resources, and a transportation system that was greatly expanded over anything before, albeit technologically primitive, greatly assisted the Empire in managing such concentrations of resources.

Rome’s first great achievement was troop transport.  Armadas of one sort or another date back to nearly 3000 B.C., but no one, with the possible exception of the Philistines of the Old Testament who were probably Mycenian Greeks, had previously launched full scale invasions by sea.  Rome landed huge armies first in North Africa and then in the Levant and conquered great expanses of land in the process.  From those conquered territories even larger numbers of slaves were brought west by the same water borne transportation system.  With such hordes of slaves Rome built the world’s first plantation system on the island of Sicily.  Incidentally, the traffic in slaves constituted the world’s first true economic market where the supply of goods, i.e. slaves, directly and immediately influenced their price.  But unlike that serving the plantation systems which developed in the Americas some fifteen hundred years later, the Roman slave market was not self perpetuating.  Once the period of conquest was over the supply of slaves dwindled drastically.

Rome’s next expansion of its transportation system occurred slightly later when it began to import grain from Egypt whose agricultural system was itself a result of the extreme concentration of water resources and an efficient internal transportation system.  Rome established a grain fleet consisting of merchantmen of unprecedented size, nearly two hundred feet in length and hundreds of tons in displacement.  These were not trade ships per se because nothing was traded for the grain which was simply exacted from the Province of Egypt as a tax.

No precedent existed for the grain fleet.  No nation had ever been dependent on another for basic sustenance, and no nation before Rome had the means of transporting a quantity of foodstuffs sufficient to feed millions of individuals.   This was a transportation revolution of the first magnitude and yet it involved no new technology whatever.  The grain ships were merely larger versions of the Roman merchantmen that had plied the Mediterranean for hundreds of years prior.  They were not more advanced.  But the uses to which they were put were entirely novel and of extreme historical importance.

In examining the ships themselves, one sees evidence of an underlying design approach that manifested itself again and again in Roman crafts and building techniques, not only as applied to transportation but to nearly every aspect of material life.  The ships carried relatively little sail and indeed were incapable of doing so due to the basic design of the rigging.  Most of the sail area was in the mainsail which was supplemented by a relatively small topsail and a slightly larger foresail called an artemon which was supported by a short, forward raking foremast.  A few ships had a third mast behind the main mast but that only bore a single smallish sail.  Since very large sails are difficult to handle, these ships used fairly small ones, and thus total sail area was low.  In addition, they had little ability to sail into the wind.

On the other hand, the hulls were wonderfully well built, the precise joinery of the planks eliminating the need for caulking.  Generally, they were sheathed with lead foil which kept away barnacles and shipworms so they never needed to be scraped.  And yet the hulls were tubby which combined with the underpowered rigs made for very poor sailing qualities.   As with many areas of Roman construction, fit and finish were excellent but design and engineering were marginal.  Again, sheer concentration of resources rather than technology enabled Romans to move the thousands of tons of grain that arrived at the port of Ostia every year.

Rome is justly famous for its network of paved roads which again are virtually without precedent.  No country had ever built extensive paved roads before, indeed paved roads connecting cities were almost nonexistent before Rome.  Unlike Roman shipping however, the roads served the military rather than the populace, though ordinary persons were free to use them.  Rome depended for its defense upon the swift deployment of its relatively small army, and the road system enabled troops and supplies to be moved quickly and also provided for the movement of couriers riding relays of horses, making the roads a communication system as well as a transportation system.  In addition, Rome had another even faster communications system using flashing mirrors, called heliographs today, and some early analog to Morse code.  Romans also used carrier pigeons.

Many Roman roads were constructed by the army which was their chief beneficiary.  In newly conquered lands such as Britain, the roads did not follow earlier paths but served to connect Roman cities which themselves were generally built upon previously unoccupied sites.  Like the cities, the roads were a foreign overlay intended to assist in the subjugation and exploitation of the countryside.

An especially interesting aspect of the Roman road system was the extensive use of soldiers to patrol it to suppress banditry and the establishment of post houses every few miles for the use of couriers and government functionaries.  A government official could enjoy comfortable lodgings and could travel very quickly using fresh mounts provided at each post house.  The Romans did much more than build roads, they fashioned an elaborate support system for them.

The roads themselves were superbly constructed, and their quality was all the more impressive when one considers that they were not preceded by any lengthy evolutionary development.  Still, a number of architectural historians with strong engineering backgrounds have pointed out that the roads were essentially buried walls and that their designers lacked a thorough understanding of the requirements of a highway.  As in many areas of Roman engineering, lavish use of building materials and meticulous attention to detail was substituted for scientific design.   Instead of exploiting the inherent strengths of materials by placing them in such a way as to minimize wear and stress, the Romans simply used twice as much material as they thought was needed and dressed every stone placed on the road bed.

Similar use of couriers, paved roads, and coded communications via heliograph would not be seen in Europe again until the nineteenth century, and the appearance of these innovations in ancient times must strike us as astonishingly modern.  Rome anticipates the Europe of the nineteenth century in other respects as well.  Aqueducts brought running water to the cities over great distances, and water towers maintained water pressure permitting running water in houses and in public lavatories.  Rivers were dammed and used to power great watermills arranged one beneath another in what can only be described as industrial concentrations.  Stage coach lines carried members of the public from one town to another, and horse drawn cabs provided public transportation services in the largest cities.  The Romans even had newspapers copied by scores of enslaved scribes at night and distributed the next morning.

And yet in nearly all of these cases what one had was merely the concentration of resources rather than their efficient exploitation, and, in most cases, the new forms of transportation were services of the state rather than private entrepreneurial undertakings.  The grain fleet itself was a result of the growing population of Italy and the inefficiency of its own agricultural system;  it rested upon inefficiency.  The Roman newspaper required dozens of slaves to do the work of one printing press, a device that was never even conceived in Rome.  And the Roman system of paved roads contributed little to commerce or to public transportation because until very late in the Empire all Roman horse drawn carriages used highly inefficient breastband harnesses that choked the horses as they pulled.  Smoothing the road surface was done at great expense to effect marginal improvements in vehicle efficiency when an improvement in the harness would have been far more effective even if no improvements at all were made to the roads.  Furthermore, the road system in all its impressive scope may be attributed to the gross deficiencies of Roman fortresses.  Medieval castles were designed to permit very small garrisons to defend them and thus to command the local countryside with a minimum expenditure of man power, but Roman forts required larges forces to man and defend.  Thus armies had to be rushed to hot spots where they would temporarily augment local garrisons.  In contrast, Medieval armies were able to occupy lands without good roads.  Crusader armies occupied the Baltic lands, Greece, and the Holy Land during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with castles alone.  In short, Roman roads were a consequence of an underlying technical incompetence with deep cultural roots.  What they represent is an attempt to make up for fundamentally poor technology with excellent social organization.

We see further evidence of such tendencies in the evolution of the Roman state under Diocletian resulting in what has come to be known as the Dominate.  Diocletian set up wage and price controls to curb inflation, established a line item imperial budget, the first formal governmental budget in history, and organized all guilds and crafts organizations under the state so that all workers could be made responsive to the demands of the Roman war machine.  Diocletian established a command economy that was a weird mirror image of modern state socialism.  But it was a socialism that was almost wholly in the service of the state not of the worker.

Whatever the technological inadequacies that gave rise to Rome’s formidable transportation system, that system functioned well for hundreds of years, perhaps too well, because Rome became utterly dependent upon it.  Rome could not feed itself without the grain fleet and could not defend itself without the shuttling armies, most made up of foreign recruits, that were relayed from fort to fort during times of crisis.  Individual cities were not well equipped to defend themselves and at the point where the army was overwhelmed and unable to move quickly enough to respond to the many simultaneous incursions that began around 250 AD, the survival of the Empire was threatened.

Unlike the transportation system of nineteenth century Europe, the first to surpass that of Rome, the Roman system did almost nothing to create wealth but only aided in its exploitation.  It was a system responsive to the needs of a despotic state not to the populace.

The Roman transportation system in all its complexity and its impressive scope could only be sustained by heavy taxation.  Because it did not serve commerce or foster settlement in any fundamental way, it lacked the feedback mechanisms either to sustain its own growth or improve its efficiency.  It was without the social dimension that clearly characterized the first transportation revolution involving horseback riding and nomadism or later revolutions involving canals and railroads.  It teaches us that a transportation system imposed from above has an element of artificiality about it and is inherently fragile.

And here we discern a third principle.  Transportation systems imposed from above almost never become self sustaining because only the state has an interest in their preservation they lack positive feedback mechanisms of wealth creation that would cause them to grow.

Transportation and Trade

Because Rome imposed universal peace, trade flourished within and beyond its boundaries, but Rome itself was in no sense a mercantile empire.  It drew its wealth from subsistence agriculture, not trade or manufacturing and had little but gold to send to the kingdoms of the east which produced the silks, and spices, ivory, and fine steels that Romans desired.

The Cretans and the Phoenicians may have established trading empires, but we know too little about either to say for certain.  Both were formidable sailors and the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa.  So, incidentally, were the later Greeks who eventually reached Zanzibar, Vietnam, and the Baltic.

The ancient state that did unquestionably establish a trading empire was Palmyria, an expanded city state located in what is present day Jordan and Iraq.  Palmyria, as we have seen, used camel caravans to transport goods on a massive scale, and established corporations that sold stock to finance trading expeditions.  Palmyria represents the first indisputable incidence of a technological advance, i.e. camel transport, to advance trade from a casual exchange of goods to the chief enterprise of a state, and it is highly important for that reason.

Palmyria under its great queen Zenobia briefly created a sizable land empire by making war with Rome and wresting a number of provinces from its grasp.  But eventually Palmyria was defeated and absorbed into the Roman Empire and its innovations in trade passed to other Semitic states in the Middle East.

Devolution and Revolution – the Dark Ages

Many thoughtful scholarly studies have been published over the centuries on the causes of Rome’s dissolution including one great book, Gibbons’ matchless Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Space does not permit any consideration of the various scholarly analyses of one of the great events of history.

What can be said here is that contrary to the popular conception of Rome’s disintegration the Empire ceased to exist primarily because it was overrun by alien peoples;  it did not collapse from within, and its military defeat had nothing to do with “decadence” or too much sex or straying from the paths of virtue.  Rome did suffer increasingly from internal peasant revolts as well as military insurrections toward the end, and these undoubtedly weakened it and made it less able to resist foreign incursions, but the incursions themselves are what proved fatal.  Rome’s borders enclosed rich lands which were increasingly sparsely populated over the centuries as the overall birthrate declined, and these proved irresistible to peoples from Northern Europe and from the East.

Rome was a universal urban civilization foisted upon an ethnically diverse and largely unassimilated peasantry which benefited little from it and was mercilessly exploited to support it.  That peasantry existed in a state of peonage in many places and had little incentive to resist incursions onto lands that it only worked and did not own.   It had even less incentive to resist raids upon the cities. 

As the cities were overrun, the civilization they hosted withered away because it could not take refuge in the countryside.  Only in Greece where Classical Civilization had begun did it survive intact.  And only in the Eastern Empire of Byzantium did the roads survive, though interestingly the grain shipments and the great ships that carried them did not.

With the destruction of the Roman state the Roman transportation system upon which the state had depended and which in turn was wholly dependent upon the state fell into disarray.  The roads were not maintained, the station houses and postal system simply disappeared, and the military patrols ceased.  Shipping declined precipitately as well.

Then, just a couple of centuries after the fall of Rome, a rather different transportation revolution occurred in two disparate places, in the Muslim lands of North Africa and in Scandinavia.  In both cases what occurred was the development of a type of ship that was fundamentally different from anything built previously—two revolutionary vessels that were not at all similar in the details of their designs but were roughly equivalent in their sailing qualities.  These were the long ship of the Vikings and the fast, slender, lateen rigged vessel of the Mediterranean that has come to be known by many names, felucca, Chebec, and caravel, and until the nineteenth century was without equal in the West for sheer speed under sail.

 North Coast and South Coast

 Since Viking dragon ships were frequently buried in peat bogs with their owners, a number have survived the centuries in remarkably good condition.  Indeed we know to the last detail how they were constructed and what they looked like.

The form of the hull of the dragon was as good in its own way as that of the most advanced modern racing yacht.  It was what modern naval architects call a super slender hull and could have achieved speeds well in excess of twenty knots with a more powerful rig.   Each hull was actually tuned by the shipwright to flex in rhythm with the waves so that the hull in effect swam through the water like a fish, thereby decreasing water resistance.  It was an artifact the like of which no human had ever built before.

The dragon was very fast, seaworthy, beautiful, and capable of traveling across hundreds of miles of open water under the most extreme weather conditions.  Dragons went to Iceland, Spitzbergen, Greenland, Nova Scotia, across the top of Scandinavia, and across the Baltic and into the Russian rivers and from thence down to the Black Sea.  They also sailed into the Mediterranean all the way from Norway.  Dragons could do a steady fifteen knots in a good wind, fast enough to escape any Mediterranean galley intent on pursuing them.  Perhaps most significantly, they could sail into the wind, though not as well as modern fore and aft rigged vessels.

Most dragon ships were privately owned by what we would call the yeoman class, that is, prosperous farmers, though richer men built them as well, and poorer men sometimes acquired them.  In many instances large extended families made up of poorer individuals pooled their resources to purchase dragons.  What they provided was an escape from the unforgiving lands of Scandinavia and a chance to prosper by trade or plunder in the settled lands to the south.  They also provided a means of emigrating, and Norsemen sailed their dragons to new homes all over Europe as far away as Sicily.  The great European freedom machine circa 700 A.D.

As in the case with horses five millennia prior, dragon ships provided a poor, inconsequential people with a high degree of mobility that immediately translated into a military and commercial advantage, and for that reason they were very rapidly adopted after their first appearance in the seventh century.

As the Scandinavian countries became consolidated under powerful central monarchies led by Christian kings, men with dragon ships began to be suspect.  Freebooters became an embarrassment to the new states which sought treaties with the older kingdoms to the south.  Construction of the dragons was discouraged.

But dragons did not die for a time.  The last barbarians in Europe, the pagan peoples of Finland and the Baltic states, adopted the dragon ship as their own, and, beginning in the twelfth century, began to raid Scandinavia and the German lands.  Scandinavia ironically became the victim of some of the worst Viking raids of all time.

The example of the dragons confirms what we have learned from earlier revolutions.  Successful transportation revolutions always have a social dimension and are frequently viral in nature.

The other innovation in ship building was characterized more by new developments in the rigging than in the hull.  The new type of sailing rig was known as the lateen sail and took the form of a right triangle of canvas suspended from a long boom that was fastened to a rather short mast.  Lateen rigged ships could sail into the wind almost as well as a modern racing sailboat, but particularly excelled in reaching and running, i.e. sailing with the wind behind or perpendicular to the path of the ship.

The lateen rigged vessels used by North African pirates had long, narrow hulls and generally at least two masts.   Because lateen sails are difficult to handle, the ships had fairly large crews.  While lateen rigs had been known to the Romans, Arabs perfected them and mated them with slender hulls that exploited their remarkable sailing abilities to the fullest.  North Africans raided the coasts of Southern Europe in such ships and overran Sicily which they colononized.  In later centuries these corsairs who came to be known as Barbary pirates sailed as far as Iceland.

Unlike the Vikings, the later Barbary corsairs did not migrate into the lands they raided and founded no dynasties or states.  They were pure predators, not settlers or traders.  They lasted far longer than the Vikings—right up until the early nineteenth century when the U.S. Navy destroyed the last of them—but their impact on history was negligible compared to that of the Vikings.

In time Europeans would learn to build such vessels and the Portuguese relied upon them in their voyages around Africa and later to the New World.  But eventually they gave way to modern, square rigged three-masted ships which represented the final evolution in large sailing vessels in the West.

In both the case of the dragon ship and the Chebec, these new vessels incorporated a key technical innovation that was only dimly grasped by their builders but is no less important on that account.  For the first time sails began to be operated as airfoils where lift rather than the drag provides the motive force.  Sails operated in this manner are at least twice as efficient as older sails which captured the wind rather than deflecting it, And, moreover, they can be operated with the wind ahead of them or to the side rather than just directly behind.

The Early Modern Era – the Canal Experience

The revolutions in transportation that occurred in the modern era, 1600 to the present, were discontinuous to a degree that was unprecedented since the first revolution involving horse transport.  They did not so much build on the past as destroy it.

The first hint of the radically new began with the proto-industrial revolution that occurred in Holland in the seventeenth century.  Holland began using wind and water power to unprecedented degrees in manufacturing processes, drilling cannon out with wind powered drills and operating sawmills and water pumps with wind and water power.  The new nation even used to tidal flows to operate large water mills. Even as Holland was exploiting water power in unusual ways in industry, it was also inventing or rather re-inventing a rather unique form of water transport, the horse drawn canal boat.  Canal boats had been used in Rome to transport travelers overnight from Rome to the port of Ostia, perhaps the first regularly scheduled public transportation system in history, and had been used fairly extensively in China to carry food from the Southern agricultural regions to the northern capital cities, but had not been used previously as a primary mode of overland transport.  Holland began constructing an intricate network of canals covering much of the country and set up services running at fixed schedules for carrying human passengers in relative speed and comfort.  Canals proved cheaper and faster to construct than a paved road system and they were easier to maintain as well.  They represented a solution that never seemed to have occurred to anyone previously, if we discount the example of Venice whose canal system was and is strictly urban and for that reason is really quite different.

The canal systems of Holland anticipate later transportation revolutions in that they were intimately tied to patterns of land usage, particularly those leading to the settlement of previously unoccupied lands.  Early modern Holland was unique among Western European nations in having an internal frontier of settlement.  During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Holland was taking form as a nation it was also expanding its habitable lands by draining tidal pools and salt marshes whose beds lay slightly below sea level.  The Dutch used vast numbers of wind mills to operate the pumps that drained these shallow bodies of water, and simultaneously constructed a system of dikes that prevented the sea from returning.  In this way the land area was almost doubled.

New, intelligently planned cities were built to occupy the virgin lands, and canals were designated as the preferred mode of transportation just as had been the case with Venice.  But Dutch canals were far more sophisticated than their Venetian counterparts.  The Dutch used their experience in draining marshes and tidal regions to construct locks that enabled them to extend the canals far inland.  As with the railways more than a century later, the Dutch canals fostered settlement and real estate development, which in turn encouraged the building of more canals.

And here we may adduce a general principle in respect to transportation revolutions.   Transportation has as its aim the delivery of persons and good to specific destinations.  Thus a change in destination brought upon a change in settlement patterns must take place for a revolution in transportation technology to exert its full effect.

At the same time the Dutch also invented wind powered wagons capable of traveling at quite high speeds, arguably, the fastest land vehicles constructed up to that time.  These, however, were only used for sport, running on stretches of level beach.

Wind wagons remained curiosities, but canals caught the fancy of the other nations of Europe.  France began constructing its canals in the late seventeenth century and England followed in the eighteenth century.  Canals it seemed were the characteristic transportation of the Age of Reason, reflecting the growing power of the Absolutist State, for their construction required the organization of vast resources, or alternately the rise of capitalist corporations who commanded similar resources through the pooling of investors’ moneys.

But even as the canals were abuilding, the transportation systems that would replace them were being conceived.   Let us immediately consider the most important of these, the steam railway.

The Railroads

Steam turbines were known to the Greeks who used them in toys.  Piston engines came much later.  A lone example using gunpowder for fuel is known from the seventeenth century, but it could not have proved practical.  A steam powered piston engine, the technology that would ultimately power the first steam age, was invented at the beginning of the eighteenth century by French savant, Denis Papin, who also patented the steam carriage and the steamboat.

More than half a century would pass before the first steam carts were tested by the French army for moving artillery, and before the first experimental steamboats actually set out on the water, and in the meantime the commercial exploitation of steam would take a different direction.  In the mid eighteenth century, Thomas Newcomen developed a primitive but practical implosion engine for operating pumps in coal mines, an engine which itself was a sort of pump operating in reverse.  Later James Watt designed double acting engines using the forces of expanding gases as well as implosion and these were vastly more powerful.

Steam engines began to be used in factories from 1780 on, principally in operating looms at first.  They continued to live in the coal mines, however, and they lived very well since they liked to operate on high energy coal.  They quickly diversified in their applications, windlassing wagons full of coal on iron rails up and down the mine shafts as well as operating pumps.

During the opening years of the nineteenth century the engines began to be mounted on carts where a crank arrangement was used to transform the linear motion of the piston into the rotary motion of the wheels.   Thus was the locomotive born.

Locomotives did nothing more than shuttle coal initially, taking it out of the mines where it was extracted, and into the factory towns where steam looms consumed it insatiably.  The more abundant the coal the more power looms could be set up and the more locomotives were required to feed them.  As in the case with earlier transportation revolutions, a powerful feedback loop was quickly established.

The looms fed on people and sheep as well.  During the eighteenth century vast numbers of tenant farmers had been turned off the farms where they’d labored for centuries as the landlords turned increasingly to the highly profitable raising of sheep which required relatively few employees.  The sheep were sheered for wool which poured into the factory towns where steam looms and spinning wheels ran day and night.  And the men who’d been turned off the land worked the wheels and looms.   And the system grew and grew because the machine-made cloth was cheap and in demand and the coal brought in by the trainload was what made it cheap.  Here again, the institutional setting was in place in England, which was why the steam powered industrial revolution occurred there rather than in France where the steam engine was actually invented.

Thus was the destiny of the railroad determined from the onset.  People today think of passenger trains when they think of rails, but a railroad is best considered as a very extended assembly line making a whole region or even a whole nation into a factory rather than as a primary means of transporting people.  Trains began to carry individuals from the eighteen twenties, it is true, but mechanized industry and systematic single crop agriculture is what made them profitable.   They opened up the interiors of continents to industrial exploitation in a way that had simply been impossible prior.

Here we advance yet another principle.  Transportation revolutions succeed when they are intimately linked to larger industrial processes.

In the United States railroads figured especially prominently in the mechanized production of food.  Railroads provided the principal means of transporting grain from the increasingly mechanized farms of the plains states, and they shipped cattle from railheads throughout the West to slaughterhouses in Chicago and elsewhere.  Refrigeration cars then shipped the carcasses to the eastern seaboard where the packing plants were located.

Steam powered riverboats constitute a parallel and actually somewhat earlier transportation revolution, and, as in the case of railroads, won greater acceptance in the U.S. than was ever the case in Europe.   The Eastern U.S. possesses an unparalleled system of interlinked navigable rivers, and steamboats could transport goods and passengers throughout the sparsely settled lands between the Alleghany Mountains and the Great Plains in the period before 1850 when railroads began to encroach on the riverboat monopoly in transportation.

The reason that these new motorized modes of transports succeeded so well in the U.S. compared to elsewhere was that in a real sense they drove settlement patterns.  In fact, in the area west of the Mississippi, the railroads typically claimed right of ways of one mile on either side of the tracks and sometimes acquired even more extensive tracts of land beyond the right of way.  This land was sold or leased to settlers and businesses and was under the direct jurisdiction of the railroads which functioned as quasi-governments though ones that were answerable to no electorate.  Huge numbers of individuals would have migrated west in any event, but trains and riverboats provided them with an easier means of doing so and a secure connection back to urbanized areas once they were settled.

Europe, on the other hand, was already very densely populated before the first trains and steamboats appeared on the scene, and the new high speed transportation systems proved incapable of uprooting settled populations, except in the case of England where a sort of inverse internal frontier was established, promoting urban rather than suburban settlements.  The flight of rural populations from the land to the cities continued in the nineteenth century, abetted by cheap rail travel and the uprooted found occupation in the factories.   

Further Transportation Revolutions in America – the Coming of the Interurbans

The new modes of transport developed in the nineteenth century had two crucially important characteristics:  they opened vacant or sparsely occupied lands to efficient agricultural or industrial exploitation and simultaneously fostered the private ownership of homes on cheap, previously vacant land.  Because America had a mobile population with a yen to own private farms and/or domiciles, the transportation revolutions tended to begin there and in some cases went no further. 

Following the introduction of conventional railroads and riverboats, Americans embraced light rail interurban and urban systems—first horse drawn street cars riding on sunken rails, then cable cars, and finally electric trolleys.  Neither horse cars nor cable cars were much accepted in Europe, particularly cable cars, while trolley systems lagged behind by almost two decades.  The modern belief that Europe always had better public transportation than the U.S. is simply not true.  At the turn of the twentieth century Europe had a mere handful of light rail systems while the U.S. had hundreds.

Street and interurban rail systems were as intimately tied to land usage and settlement patterns as were conventional full sized railways, but in a different way.  While a few wealthy suburbs constituting the nation’s first bedroom communities had emerged even before the Civil War to take advantage of rapid rail transport to and from neighboring metropolises where businesses tended to be headquartered, suburban flight only became significant with the rise of the interurbans.  Conventional rail systems had always been too expensive to encourage casual use, but light rail systems typically had fares of a few cents, enabling working people to live in the suburbs and commute to the cities.  Horse cars and cable cars, which both traveled relatively slowly, had only a minor stimulus on suburb building, but almost every trolley car route was lined with strips of retail businesses, and behind those several blocks of new houses.  Indeed, immediately subsequent to the closing of the western frontier circa 1890, new interior frontiers appeared where suburban settlement began to intrude into the rural countryside.  And these new frontiers continue to recede into the hinterlands all the way up to the present day when suburban sprawl can extend fifty or even a hundred miles from the center of a major city.

Electric trolley cars and the cable cars that preceded them are both worthy of close examination because they illustrate the way that successful transportation revolutions occur in synergistic relationships with economic, social, and industrial changes.  As in the case with conventional heavy railroads, the interurbans borrowed technology from industry, but where railroads originated in the mines, the interurbans were rooted both in mechanized manufacturing and in the new public utilities, and in many ways they reflect their genesis there.

During the late nineteenth century factories began to acquire sophisticated machine tools that allowed complex mechanical devices such as sewing machines, repeating rifles, and bicycles to be mass produced.  Initially a multitude of machine tools were driven by belt and pulley arrangements from a single large steam engine, a cumbersome but serviceable arrangement.  Cable car lines applied the same principles to transportation.  Centrally located steam engines spun long steel rope cables around pulleys, and the cable car operator gripped the moving cable with a mechanical arm called, appropriately enough, a gripper.  This too was a cumbersome and rather inefficient arrangement, but it represented a considerable improvement over horse drawn cars and allowed individuals to commute from communities located miles from the city centers.

Electric trolleys drew upon later manufacturing technology that appeared only in the eighteen eighties and at first only in America.  At that time the first electrical utilities appeared and they began a successful campaign to convince factory owners to electrify their plants and run machine tools off individual electric motors rather than belt and pulley arrangements.  The utilities were successful, and Westinghouse which was both a manufacturer of motors and generators and the owner of many individual utilities, adapted the same principal to street railways where individual motors in the cars drew current from exposed overhead electrical wires.

Westinghouse also manufactured trolley car motors and by selling them to street rail operators created an enormous market for the electricity they were generating in their plants.

In time entrepreneurs such as Samuel Insull of Chicago achieved further synergies.  Insull owned both street car lines and electrical utilities and speculated in land along the trolley car paths which was quickly snapped up by builders who created extensive suburbs and commercial strips.  Families flocked to the suburbs, purchasing low cost houses constructed with the new balloon framing technique, and, at the same time, shopping districts proliferated, providing an outlet for the flood of cheap consumer goods pouring out of the new electrically powered factories.  Some street car companies even built amusement parks, powered, as one might imagine, by electricity.   As in the case of conventional railways, the interurbans were embedded within positive feedback loops that encompassed other industries, but whereas the railroads had grown up with commodity manufacturing, much of it for export, the interurbans were associated with personal consumption of a discretionary sort.

As with other transportation revolutions, institutional as well as technological revolutions were necessary for the interurban phenomenon to succeed.  One such institutional revolution was the creation of the home mortgage in the eighteen eighties.  Another was the development of the public utility, a regulated monopoly, in the earlier twentieth century.

Today the interurbans are almost forgotten, and few besides professional historians grasp their significance, but in their day they were a very great success.  No was saying, “get a horse” to the riders on the trolley car lines, and there was virtually no resistance to their expansion.

In time the interurbans were eclipsed by the automobile, but during the three decades from 1890 to 1920 they were highly successful, and it was they that replaced the horse not the automobile.

It is instructive to compare 1900 era interurbans with modern light rail transport, much of it publicly financed and initiated by political edict.  Most such modern systems have proved disappointing and none have met with the overwhelming acceptance of their predecessors.  And the reason they have not is that they have been imposed upon established communities rather than spearheading the formation of new residential and commercial developments, and because they bear no relationship to key technological transformations.  They are simply seen as solutions to a small set of problems such as traffic congestion or air pollution, and not as agents for changing the very nature of housing, lifestyle, leisure, and the markets for manufactured goods—in a word, everyday life.

We can in fact go beyond such observations and arrive at fairly sound generalizations in respect to transportation networks.  In general, transportation systems imposed by governments are neither self sustaining nor endowed with their own growth dynamics.  The Roman transportation system, the outstanding example of a government mandated network, stimulated nothing but the growth of a bureaucracy for administering it.  Another example may be seen in the system of broad thoroughfares built in baroque cities during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  These were intended for the horse drawn carriages of the nobility and the haute bourgeoisie and were essentially restricted government networks though they could be used by commoner pedestrians at their own peril.  In spite of the considerable resources committed to building these impressive avenues, they were in no sense catalysts for social or economic change.  The one apparent exception to this generalization is the American Interstate Highway System launched by an act of Congress in 1956, but in this case it was backed by powerful private economic interests and was the culmination of a successful lobbying effort rather than the result of some government edict.

Personal Transportation

Even as the cable car and the electric trolley were being introduced in the eighteen eighties, a further revolution, that involving personal transportation, was underway as Americans discovered the safety bicycle.  Bicycles sold in the millions in the decade of the nineties and encouraged the improvement of American highways which had never been good and had tended to grow much worse during the late nineteenth century as railway systems got almost all of the freight and passenger traffic.

Bicycles once again demonstrated the general receptiveness of Americans to radically new modes of travel.  But unlike the interurbans they did not transform towns and cities.  That would require a motorized personal vehicle, the automobile.

The automotive revolution was as important in its way as the coming of the railroads, perhaps more important, and it is a revolution that is far from over because it is now spreading to the developing world where before it was confined to the industrialized West.  It is also a revolution that is frequently misunderstood.

First of all, it should be clearly understood that the automobile was not a direct replacement for the horse but an entirely new mode of transport with radically new capabilities, and thus the term, horseless carriage, is really something of a misnomer.  Most individuals in the U.S. and in Western Europe did not own either horses or carriages, particularly those who lived in cities, so when automobiles won mass acceptance they weren’t substituting for the horse.  Incidentally, for social reasons horses were seldom ridden in city traffic, and so urban and suburban equestrian traffic nearly always involved carriages.   The latter were both expensive and slow, and were as much an advertisement of one’s social position as a means of getting around.

If the early automobile occupied any niche it was more that of the bicycle and slightly later that of the motorcycle.   It appealed to the same kind of adventurous early adopter and provided rapid personal transportation.  Here it should be noted that during the first decade of the twentieth century motorcycles probably outnumbered automobiles in the U.S. though precise sales figures are hard to come by.  Motorcycles were of course much cheaper than automobiles, and far better able to endure the poorly constructed and maintained roads of the period.  In fact motorcycles could venture off-road and frequently did so.

Early automobiles were often purchased as much for sport as for utility, the exception being the short range, sumptuously appointed electric cars which were generally only used in cities and were in fact more or less direct substitutes for carriages—in other words these were the true horseless carriages.  Gasoline powered cars were fast but also expensive and unreliable, and until about 1905 had difficulties finding a market.  Many of the first customers were farm families who often had to travel miles to reach the nearest towns and who were simultaneously purchasing gasoline powered farm machinery and thus were prepared to deal with the idiosyncrasies of early automobiles.

Automobiles as the pre-eminent mode of personal transportation form a very distinctive and novel class of vehicles without a clear historical precedent if preclude bicycles and motorcycles, but we can still discern similar patterns in their evolution as were manifested in earlier revolutionary vehicles.  As in the case with railways, cable cars, and electric trolleys, they embodied a fundamentally new type of power source, namely the internal combustion engine, and could scarcely have succeeded without that innovation.  Steam and electric cars could have never have won mass acceptance.  The internal combustion engine was a prerequisite.

Here we perceive once again that individual types of power sources tend to find a home in vehicles that can exploit the peculiar strengths of that power source.  Internal combustion engines offer the twin virtues of excelling at stop and go driving and providing extended cruising range whereas steam offered only extended cruising range and electricity only the stop and go capability.  Since cars require both capabilities the internal combustion engine is a natural fit.

On the other hand, the first internal combustion engines could not have succeeded in the applications already claimed by steam or electricity.  Gasoline engines were and are restricted in scale.  They couldn’t have run locomotives, steam ships, or even trolley cars.  Only later when diesels were perfected could the internal combustion engine successfully challenge steam in its core markets.  In the beginning internal combustion was confined to the then unproven markets comprised of small powered watercraft, motorcycles, and automobiles.

In any analysis of the rise of the automobile it is important to remember that the adoption of the latter was very much slower than that for the trolley car.  While automobile took almost twenty years to establish itself as a major mode of transportation, the trolley achieved that feat in about three years.  Having grasped that central fact one must then comprehend the reasons why this was so. 

Much of the difference can be attributed to the fact that the trolley lines consisted of both vehicles and the necessary infrastructure to support them—the two yoked together in a very tight relationship.  In some instances the electrical utilities actually owned the rail systems or even the real estate developments growing up around them.  In any case, the total system—transport, housing, and retail commerce—was interlocked and formed an organic whole.

The automobile in time established even more powerful synergies, but they weren’t present at the beginning.  Roads suitable for automobiles scarcely existed though new methods of paving utilizing macadam or concrete had recently been invented.  Furthermore, there was no good model in place for road construction.   Unlike the case with either light or heavy rail systems, the vehicles and the road itself were not part of the same corporate entity.  

The U.S. had never undertaken vast public works in the past, and what highway systems had been built prior to the railroads had generally consisted of private toll roads.  Furthermore, it was difficult to frame a justification in public policy terms for building paved roads for the betterment of the few wealthy owners of automobiles.   Finally, road construction could not proceed at anywhere near the pace that railway construction had.  The Union and Central Pacific railways could span a continent in a few years because rails themselves were easy to manufacture and could be laid in place quickly and efficiently with human muscle power.  Comparable speed could not be achieved in paved highway construction even with heavy earth moving equipment, and such equipment did not exist in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Fuel was also a considerable problem.  During the eighteen nineties when the automotive industry was struggling to be born, gasoline was regarded as a waste product by the petroleum companies who at the time made most of their income selling kerosene for lighting and were then confronting a mortal challenge from the electrical utilities with their incandescent electric lights.  Furthermore, there was no pervasive distribution system for gasoline so the automobile enthusiast attempting to travel any distance might have difficulty refueling.  The oil companies themselves were faced with an agonizing decision of whether to change their products and distribution system to serve the emerging automobile—an invention whose success was by no means assured in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  In effect, they were betting their future on a transportation revolution that by 1900 had sputtered along for more than a decade without really igniting.  And one should also remember that for literally decades the revolution was largely confined to the United States.  Automotive ownership remained low in Europe up until the mid twentieth century and was insignificant throughout the developing world.  Compared to the railroads the automobile was a fairly unsuccessful innovation for fully half its lifespan.

Moreover, the relationship between the manufacturers and the fuel providers was grossly unequal.  With the exception of Peugeot no large, well capitalized companies were active in the manufacture of automobiles in the eighteen nineties.

Given the challenges faced by the automobile it is little wonder that it was a long time in establishing itself.  Once certain preconditions were in place, however, an explosion in production was virtually assured.

The first pre-requisite was better roads and, curiously enough, these were built in farming areas where they were vitally necessary for farmers transporting produce to railheads in trucks.  Second, were low cost mass produced cars, an area in which Ford Motor Company took the lead with its famous Model T.  And the third factor—and, in the last analysis, this is perhaps the most important, was the sheer enthusiasm inspired by the new vehicles.  Early automobile owners were willing to endure outrageous pricing, terrible roads, frequent breakdowns, exposure to the elements, and even broken limbs incurred while crank starting the contraptions.  The reason that automobiles survived the troubled first two decades of their existence was that a sizable body of individuals simply loved them—in other words, they sold themselves.  Anyone contemplating the instigation of a future revolution in personal transportation should remember this.  There’s no more powerful marketing attribute than the ability to arouse passionate affection.

Once automotive ownership assumed certain proportions toward the close of the teens of the century, the automobile began to transform the landscape of America in an even more fundamental way than the streetcars had.  Whereas streetcars could only serve narrow strips of suburban development lying along the tracks, the automobile could provide access to entire towns.  It also promoted much more extensive retail development than had the trolley.  With the twenties came the first shopping centers and later huge enclosed malls.  All of these conspired to create more feedback loops where automotive traffic encouraging suburban building sprees and those in turn encouraged automobile buying sprees.

One factor that vastly accelerated the whole process was the introduction of the commercial truck at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.  Even the first examples far exceeded horse drawn wagons in speed and carrying capacity and they provided an enormous stimulus to retail expansion which in turn provided stimulus to automotive production and suburban builds.  They also directly assisted the builders of suburban homes by providing a means for moving building materials, as did the introduction of power carpentry tools and construction equipment using internal combustion engines.

In time the automobile spawned motels, supermarkets, fast food franchises, and the whole vast edifice of drive-in culture, and all of these various manifestations became new feedback loops promoting the sale of more and more cars.  Today the process still continues and has spread to Europe and is threatening to engulf the new industrial nations of Asia as well.  Nevertheless, diminishing petroleum reserves and the virtual certainty of an eventual diminution in production must bring a halt to the untrammeled growth of the automobile culture if it continues to rest upon a petroleum base.  In time some further transportation revolution has to occur.  The question is when and what form it will take.

Detour:  Twentieth Century Revolutions in Public and Commercial Transport

During the past hundred years public and commercial transport have been transformed just as thoroughly as has personal transportation.

Railroad trains, as we have seen, began as commercial transport vehicles, and so did steam ships though they were also embraced by the world’s leading navies.  The progress of steam at sea was rather different than on land, however, and a good deal slower.

Railroads quickly established dominance in overland transport wherever they were built.  In the U.S. they succeeded in taking over most of the traffic from the paddlewheel river boats and they obsolesced most of the canals as well.  And they did so very quickly.

But if one looks at photographs of late nineteenth century harbors, one notes that steam powered vessels are a decided minority.  Only when steam powered turbines and diesel reciprocating engines were introduced in the early twentieth century did the engine powered vessel establish its dominance.  In other words, the classic steam powered piston engine only established a rough parity with sail, it did not replace it.

Why did sail endure so long in the face of the steam revolution?  Obviously wind is free and coal is not but this is scarcely the whole explanation since engines did eventually prevail.  The real explanation is more involved.

First of all, the design of sailing ships became more scientific and their speed increased markedly.  Under favorable wind conditions they could match and exceed the speed of early steamers.  Second, the introduction of mechanized sail handling systems reduced the crew requirements for large ships.  Third, and perhaps most important, piston powered steam engines needed extensive maintenance and required a multitude of tenders, many of whom were skilled technicians demanding high wages.  They were impractical on small coastal vessels such as fishing boats which actually comprised the majority of watercraft.

Now here’s where our transportation past really gets interesting and assumes great relevance to the present because the two examples of the engine powered ship and the locomotive provide interesting analogies to the projected future of the automobile in so far as both commercial transport vehicles underwent changes in their power plants without changing in their overall form or functionality—a rather rare occurrence in the history of transportation.  

When, for instance cable was replaced by electric traction in street car lines, the nature of the service changed radically, and the street cars themselves became much faster and much more extended in their operating ranges.  And when the river flatboat was replaced by the paddlewheeler on big American rivers, the nature of river traffic was completely altered as was the form of the riverboats.  Similarly, when electric automobiles were replaced by the gasoline powered variety, cars ceased to be horseless carriages.  And when “bone shaker” high wheeled bicycles were replaced by safety bicycles, the bicycle became a mass market item and real means of personal transportation.

Even in the area of commercial aviation we find that a change of power plant could change the whole industry.  During the age of prop driven airliners relatively few individuals flew.  Jets made air travel a form of mass transportation.

But when ships adopted steam turbines and diesel engines they didn’t change immediately in appearance or in terms of the cargos they carried.  And locomotives scarcely changed at all in the way they operated when diesel began to replace steam in the late nineteen thirties.

One can simply conclude on this basis that there are no historical laws obtaining in the realm of transportation or, alternately, one can assume that when the power plant is replaced in a mature transportation system that is no longer rapidly expanding and has already exerted its effects on trade, industry, housing, and social customs, then relatively little fundamental change is apt to follow.  And if that isn’t a law it might at least be a truism.

And perhaps this is so, although ships evolved in ways they couldn’t have had steam reciprocating engines remained in use, and, at least in the U.S., the railroad industry fell on hard times as diesel replaced steam.

Or perhaps it is not the maturity of the transportation system that matters so much as capabilities inherent in the new technology.  Maritime diesels were easier to operate than steam engines and hastened the conversion of small vessels from sail to power simply because the skipper could now operate the boat himself.  Diesel locomotive engines, on the other hand, were considerably more fuel efficient than steam engines, and were largely adopted for simple cost reasons.

The question behind all such speculation is whether the introduction of the new technology of the fuel cell is likely to change fundamentally the nature of automotive transportation, or has the automotive society reached such a state of maturity and consolidation that new technology can have little effect upon it?

It is hard to see how the replacement of internal combustion engines by fuel cells could significantly change the current road system or the patterns of urban sprawl that have resulted from it, and this is precisely why fuel cells are favored by auto manufacturers, particularly in the U.S.   The auto makers know that Americans are not disposed to abandon the dream of suburban home ownership nor the cheap personal transportation that makes it possible.  And these same auto manufacturers prefer that the transportation systems of the present endure, systems that have proven so profitable for them in the past.  And the oil companies, so long as they can maintain their distribution networks and filling stations, will also be willing to accept a hydrogen economy, it seems.

Still, we must confess to some uncertainty as the prospect of existing patterns of housing, employment, energy usage, and transportation prevailing indefinitely, for such has never been the case in any society marked by continuing technical innovation.

The End of the Road?

From the second decade of the twentieth century, the automobile in America has been linked with suburban flight, and when the growth of suburbs reached a crescendo early in the second half of the century, automobile ownership became the norm.

Over the last twenty years or so a new element has been added to urban sprawl that is sometimes termed exurbia for want of a better word.  Here the housing tracts are located at great distances from the urban core to which they are tenuously connected--sometimes over fifty miles away—and the tracts themselves stand in isolation with no proximity to schools, churches, shopping centers, or major employers.  The houses within such tracts are virtually identical in appearance and are architected so as to discourage social interactions among the owners, whether by design or accident is difficult to determine.  In any event, the tracts themselves foster little sense of community.  Many of these developments are without sidewalks and the streets are almost deserted of people.

Exurban homes are generally cheaper than properties of equivalent square footage in more developed areas, hence their appeal.  But while they are often interspersed with a few business parks, the areas around them do not provide many employment opportunities.  Hence those who live there must either telecommute, command independent incomes, or drive very long distances to work.

Exurbs are not isolated phenomena, and they take the automobile culture to its furthest extreme at precisely the time when rising fuel costs threaten to make long distance commutes prohibitively expensive.   Because exurbs are already numerous and growing more so, they place considerable pressure on the Body Politic to ensure that fuel prices remain low, for if prices rise beyond a certain point the exurbanites will be forced to sell out, probably at ruinously low returns because few will choose to live in isolated areas without affordable transportation.  True, exurbs could conceivably be served by public transportation, but only at enormous cost per rider because the population densities are so low in the areas where they are located.

Most advocates of alternative propulsion schemes for cars, whether based on biofuel burning heat engines, hydrogen fuel cells, or advanced batteries, stop short of claiming that their replacement technologies can be operated as cheaply as today’s cars, at least not until considerable new infrastructure has been built out.  That places the vast suburb dwelling public at risk and the exurbanites most of all.

One obvious answer is to downsize or at least reduce the mass of automobiles by substituting advanced composite materials for sheet metal and thereby raise fuel efficiency.  But since many of these materials are based upon petrochemicals, that solution may be at best a partial solution.

A return of populations to the cities is of course possible, but if the only reason for such a return is an inability on the part of the society to sustain automotive transport, the impetus may be lacking to promote a successor system.  Unless cities change radically the majority of Americans will still not want to live in them and will seek whatever means present themselves for returning to the suburbs.  The automotive revolution succeeded precisely because it reinforced the drive of middle income Americans to secure homes in the suburbs.  It was a revolution borne not of necessity but desire.

Beyond Personal Transportation

Most of the advocates of the Hydrogen Highway or electric vehicles focus exclusively on personal transportation.   Fuel cell companies aren’t seeking partnerships with the manufacturers of boats, ships, aircraft, or locomotives, nor are the manufactures of those categories saying much about abandoning their current power plants.   In fact, in their current state of development fuel cells could not form the basis of practical propulsion system for either boats, aircraft, or railroads.  Serious proposals have been made for operating jet aircraft on hydrogen, but the reduction in cruising range would change the economics of the industry.  In any event, no jet engine manufacturer has a program underway for developing such a propulsion system in a commercial product, nor is any piston or turboprop engine manufacturer offering a hydrogen option.

All of this suggests that the hydrogen transition initiative has yet to gather the support necessary for implementation and remains at the level of policy papers and conferences.  That and the fact that almost all proposals for initiating the transition are predicated upon massive government support and none are inspired by a vision of social and economic change occurring in tandem with the technological transformation, indicates both a poverty of imagination and lack of understanding of the nature of transportation revolutions.  All previously successful revolutions brought swift benefits to the customers for the new technology and burgeoning profits for the investors.  Any revolution to be launched in our own age has to do likewise.

 A Final Note

We do not expect technology or society itself to cease evolving, and we anticipate further transportation revolutions lie in the offing.  What form they will take is unclear, however.  We are also uncertain as to the transportation applications that today’s emerging technologies such as fuel cells and advanced electric motors will find.  That said we can suggest the following based upon the capabilities of these technologies and the new transportation niches that may develop to support them.

As we have previously noted, fundamentally new technologies have tended to succeed in fundamentally new types of vehicles that exploit their advantages.  The chief advantage of a fuel cell is that it can produce copious amounts of electricity that can be used for any purpose and not just transportation.  Some have suggested that fuel cell powered cars could succeed simply on the basis of hosting more electronic subsystems such as entertainment, telematics, etc.  We would suggest that the type of vehicle where such capabilities would be most appreciated is not the traditional automobile but the motorhome, a category that has existed since the thirties, but has only proliferated over the course of the last three decades.  High end motor homes are extremely expensive to begin with already contain a multitude of electronic subsystems and so costly fuel cells might not be an unacceptable power source.  Fuel cells could better support such electronic subsystems than can generators and can eliminate the noise and pollution associated with the latter, and, in addition, the fuel cell can operated when the vehicle is stationary without creating objectionable noise.  And since fuel cells are energy efficient they can reduce the considerable fuel costs associated with such vehicles.

Motorhomes will probably always remain a small market, but they strike us as the one market where fuel cells may be able to establish themselves fairly quickly and beyond that to cause the category itself to evolve fundamentally.  In other words, they could be fuel cells’ early success story.

Another much discussed transportation category that may manifest itself is that comprised of automated personal aircraft with vertical take off and landing capabilities and some degree of roadability.  Boeing has a research program devoted to such craft and a number of startups are at work in the area including Davis, California based Moller International.  Moller, interestingly bases their design upon an innovative rotary engine developed by the founder, Paul Moller.

The market for two wheeled personal transport will undoubtedly continue to expand, and this could well drive housing patterns in the developing world in the same way as automobiles have in America.  Because of the dangerous elevated emission levels emitted by the current two cycle art, we would expect some kinds of new technology, probably involving the internal combustion engine to find its way into this market.

 Beyond, this the future of transportation appears murky.  We see no new systems on the horizon as revolutionary as the trolley, the automobile, or the commercial airline, and instead we see constraints as to fuel availability that did not exist in the past.  But we expect to be surprised. 

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 Last modified: January 12, 2005