All transportation depends on technology, whether it’s the wheel, the jet engine, or the computer chip. Transportation is not just technology—it’s a system of technology, people, energy, money, and more—but advances in technology play a key role in shaping transportation systems, which in turn help to shape our lives, landscapes, and culture.
Because transportation is so important to commerce, because—literally and figuratively—so much is riding on it, it has been the focus of an enormous amount of inventive activity. Corporations have invested billions of dollars in improved technology. Individuals have sought their fortunes in breakthroughs big and small.
Transportation technology includes many related areas. Motive power, of course, is one key technology. Early vehicles were pulled by human or animal power. Steam engines powered locomotives and ships in the ninetheenth century. The internal-combustion engine was invented in the 1880s and used almost immediately in cars and trucks. The jet engine was invented in the 1940s. Each of these inventions was improved by thousands of additional innovations. But less-obvious technologies also made transportation cheaper and faster. Manufacturing innovations, from Baldwin Locomotive Works’ record-keeping systems to Henry Ford’s assembly line to the Toyota system of just-in-time inventory, made personal transportation affordable.
Innovations in control systems were also essential. Railroads invented new management techniques as well as switching and communications systems to keep the trains on track and on time. Highway engineers developed traffic lights, interchanges, and a thousand other design and control systems to keep traffic moving.
It’s impossible, in the space of an exhibition or website, to describe even a small percentage of the innovations in transportation technology. But take a look at these videos—or just read the scripts—for a quick overview of transportation technology.