Term 3: Transport through time

Transport on land

The first form of transport on land was, of course, WALKING!

Then, thousands of years ago, people started to use donkeys and horses to travel and to transport things on land. Around 3,500 BC, the wheel was invented. The first wheels were simply solid discs, carved from one lump of wood. The wheel changed the way that people travelled and transported things.

The Wheel
The oldest wheel that archaeologists have found came from Mesopotamia, an ancient civilisation in the Middle East. It is probably more than 5 000 years old. The wheel is one of the most important inventions ever made, and it has helped people to travel faster and further than possible on foot. It has also made it possible to transport big loads. There are many different kinds of transportation that use wheels. Some are drawn by animals, like wagons and carriages, and others are drawn by people, like the rickshaw. Cycles also have wheels, whether it is one, two three or more. Since the end of the 19th century motorcars with wheels have transformed human travel forever.

Wagons, coaches and carriages

Before people started to use wagons and carts, they would put big logs under goods they wanted to move, and roll the logs along the ground. But that was still a lot of work and probably not that easy. So they invented small vehicles with two or four wheels, which could be pulled along by people or animals.

The first kinds of wheeled vehicles were carts (two wheels) and wagons (four wheels). They were drawn by animals like donkeys, horses and oxen. The first types of wagon and carts were found in Central Asia and in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in the Middle East, about 5 000 years ago. Later they were also used in Crete, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and China. Wagons and carts have been described before as 'boxes on wheels'. They could be used to carry a lot of goods over long distances, and to transport people. About 4 000 years ago people began to cover their wagons with leather or cloth. This protected the riders from the sun and rain. Animals used to draw wagons included donkeys, horses and oxen.

A carriage is a closed, horse-drawn vehicle with four wheels, used to transport people. Both the carriage and the wagon developed from the sled, which is probably the first land vehicle and was invented in prehistoric times.

From the carriage developed the coach, a big, closed vehicle also used to transport people. A coach could carry up to eight people. Most people believe that the coach was developed in Hungary in the 15th century. The use of these vehicles spread to other parts of Europe and England in the 16th century. There have been many different kinds of carriages and coaches through the ages. Some examples are: Cabriolet, Chaise, Drag, Phaeton and Stagecoach. A stagecoach was a public transport vehicle that carried people, baggage and mail from one station to another, like a train or a bus.

Further reading: Animals as transport
A beast of burden is an animal that is used for transporting goods or for doing other heavy work. Since ancient times, people have used animals to get from one place to another, to carry and transport things or to do work like turning mills. Many different kinds of animals have been used, and are still used today. Here are some of the animals that have been used and domesticated by people to help with various tasks: A Homing pigeon. Note the message and the thin message tube lying in front of him. Source: www.radioing.com The Pigeon The Homing Pigeon is a bird that is able to find its way home from very far off. This made it possible for people to send messages to others. The message would be written on a very thin piece of paper and put into a small tube. It was then tied to the pigeon's leg. The pigeon would then be thrown in the air to fly back home to deliver the message. It is possible that pigeons have been used to deliver messages as long ago as 1150, in Baghdad. They were used a lot during the First World War. One of these birds was called 'Cher Ami' which means 'Dear Friend'. He received a special award from the French army for his services during the war. He delivered more than 10 important messages, and was even shot once.
Donkeys and mules Donkeys are domestic animals that were originally wild donkeys from Africa. Donkeys have been used since earliest times in Europe and Asia to carry riders, their loads, to pull carts and to do heavy work. Today they are still being used in many countries all over the world. In some countries they are not used as beasts of burden anymore, but are kept as pets because they are clever, playful and friendly. In Africa, donkeys were used to carry goods through the desert. This was very important for trade across the Saharan desert. But donkeys cannot survive long without food and water, and from about the 3rd century they were replaced by camels. In South Africa, donkey carts can still be seen in many rural areas. A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey. People have used mules since ancient times. The ancient Greeks and Romans used them to pull carts and to carry loads. In the 20th century, they were used for military transport. They have become less common since the invention of cars and tractors, but they are still useful in areas that are not accessible to cars.
Horses The horse has been one of the most important beasts of burden for hundreds of years. They have been used for travel, to draw carts, carriages, trams and other wheeled vehicles, to plough fields and to carry loads. People use a range of different tools to ride on a horse. These include the saddle, stirrups, and reins. Horses were even used to draw boats between about 1630 to about 1850. Horse-drawn boats were also called tow-boats. They would sail on a canal and were drawn by horses walking along special paths along the canal. These paths were called the 'tow-paths'. Horse-drawn boats were used for goods as well as for public transport.
During the Great Trek, the Voortrekkers had to move over mountains and rivers with their ox wagons. Source: www.visitswazi.com Oxen An ox is a bull that has been castrated. The term is also used to refer to any cattle used as beasts of burden. Oxen have many uses. They can be used for ploughing, transport, pulling heavy things, grain-grinding (like donkeys) and to draw wagons. They are usually used in pairs. A yoke is put on their necks, so that the weight of the load being pulled is distributed equally across their shoulders. Oxen are very strong. Although they are not as fast as horses, they do not get injured as easily. In South Africa, oxen have been used for hundreds of years, for example to plough the land. During the Great Trek, the Boer families who left the Cape to go and live in the interior used ox-wagons to travel. These were wagons covered with a sail and pulled by many oxen. In the wagons the Boers had all their furniture and other possessions. With their ox-wagons, they travelled very far – as far as what is today the Limpopo Province, Mpumalanga and even Maputo. They oxen had to trek over the Drakensberg and other mountain ranges, through rivers and veld.
Camels Camels were first domesticated in Arabia thousands of years ago. Because they can go for a long time without food or water, are strong and can walk easily through sand, they were very useful for transport and travel in the Arabian desert. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, camels spread to the African Sahara. They replaced donkeys, horses and oxen to transport people and goods through the desert. Now, the people from North Africa could trade more easily and regularly with the people south of the Sahara.
Elephants Elephants are not only found in Africa. The cousin of the African elephant, the Asian or Indian elephant, is slightly smaller and easier to tame. In Asia, elephants have been tamed and used for travel and transport since ancient times. They have also been used in wars. Other animals that have been used for travel and transport through the ages are dogs, llamas, reindeer and water buffalo.

The Steam engines, trains and Trams

A tram. Source: www.salonboten.nl

The train was first invented in the beginning of the 19th century. But the idea of a vehicle running along a fixed track is actually much, much older. At least 2000 years ago, the Greeks and Romans had horse-drawn wagons that ran along stone tracks. For many years these vehicles disappeared, but then the Europeans started to use them again around 1550, using wooden tracks. More than 200 years later, they began to make the tracks from iron. This would develop into the world's first public railway, but not as it is known today. It was still drawn by a horse. It was called a tramway, and the horse-drawn cars were known as trams.

Then the steam locomotive was invented. It developed out of the steam engine that James Watt developed in the 1760s. In 1804 a steam locomotive ran on tracks for the first time, and these were soon bettered by George Stephenson. The first major railway was built in 1830, between Liverpool and Manchester in England. Railways soon spread throughout the world. Before the invention of cars and planes, trains were the most important way to transport goods and people over long distances on land.

Since the invention of the steam train, many further developments have been made. Nowadays, trains work with electricity and not steam. Diesel engines have also been used. In some large cities like London, Paris and New York underground trains are a very popular form of public transport. There are also some very fast trains, like the TGV in France (TGV stands for 'train of great speed').

In the meantime, the horse-drawn cars known as trams did not die out with the arrival of the train. It was still a popular form of public transport in the middle of the 20th century, also in South Africa. Like trains, trams were later made to run on electricity instead of being pulled by horses. An electric rail would run along the track, above the train, and the train would be connected to the wire as far as it went. Trams have also been known by other names, like streetcars and trolleys, and are still being used in some parts of the world.

Further reading: For more on the history of railways, trains and trams: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport


The problem with animal-drawn vehicles is that if something goes wrong with the animals you are stranded. Animals are also expensive, because they need food, medicine and a lot of care. So the ideal would be to develop a vehicle that could be powered by something other than animals, like an engine.

A Model T Ford from 1915. Source: hometown.aol.com

The first vehicles that propelled themselves were already invented in the 18th century. They were powered by steam. The first car was invented in 1769, by French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. His car could travel at about 4 km/h and was called the 'Steam Wagon'. It had three wheels, two in the back and one in the front. The steam boiler was in front. But in 1771, the vehicle crashed into a brick wall. As far as we know, this was the first car accident, and it was one of the reasons why the experiment with such vehicles was stopped.

These cars were never really popular in France. But in Britain a similar vehicle was developed in 1801 and it became quite popular. They were developed further, with hand brakes and speed control. But these cars were heavy and fast, and many thought they were dangerous. A law was passed that in order to drive a car like that on a public road in Britain, there had to be a person walking in front of the car, waving a red flag and blowing a horn. Naturally, people did not like this law and cars became less popular. For the rest of the 19th century, inventors occupied themselves with developing steam trains, which had become very important in the Industrial Revolution. It was only much later in that century that cars would get much attention again.

By the end of the 19th century there were cars powered by steam, by electricity and by petroleum (petrol). The makers of these different types of cars competed with each other for many years. In the end, the petrol car won, and it is still the car used today. The first petrol car was invented by different people at around the same time, in the 1880s. The one was Carl Benz and the others were Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

At the time of all these developments in Europe, cars were being made in the United States of America (USA) as well. In the USA, cars are often called automobiles. The first one was demonstrated in 1804 by Oliver Evans. This car could travel on land with wheels like a normal car, but it could also paddle on water. Just like Cugnot's car, it was powered by steam. The next step in the development of the car came at the end of the century.

The first cars were all made individually. The parts were made separately and then put together by hand. This took much too long. In 1913 the American car maker Henry Ford began to use an assembly line to make his cars. An assembly line is a way of producing many things in a short time. It is a line of machines and people. Each of these are responsible for a certain step in putting something, like a car, together. For example, at one point a machine will put in the engine. The car will then move along the line to the next point, where something else will be put into place. By the time it reaches the end of the long line, the car is complete. This is called mass production, because products can be made in large quantities. It made cars much quicker and cheaper to make and buy. Henry Ford was not really the first car maker to use this method, but he developed it further and made it common practice.

Cars have developed a lot since then. Some of the first further developments were things like the electric ignition and brakes for all four wheels. Today, cars can be very advanced. Where the first car could travel at about 5 km/h, cars can now drive faster than 200 km/h. The first recorded long drive in a car in Britain was in 1895, and it was just over 90 km long. Today, cars travel for thousands of kilometres at a time. Some of the more expensive cars include CD players, computer screens, televisions, even fridges. But no matter how luxurious or simple, cars have become one of the most important ways to travel, especially in the city. In South Africa a lot of people have their own cars, and others travel by taxi or bus, which are really large cars.

Further reading: An early motor journey: Johannesburg to Durban 1912
In the Rand Daily Mail for 27 May 1912 may be found a full account of a paper read by Mr. Ed. H. Waugh, Municipal Building Surveyor of Johannesburg, before the Transvaal Automobile Club, on his motor trip to Durban.
Mr. Waugh and his bride, a recent arrival from England, set off on their journey on the afternoon of their marriage and spent the first night camping alongside the Zuikerboschrand Spruit ten miles beyond Heidelberg. An unexpected visitor whose "rough hairy visage" peered through the tent flap proved merely to be "a resident Boer full of curiosity". Waugh's car, which has been traced from early Johannesburg motor licensing records, was originally registered as Johannesburg No. 97 and later as TJ 68. It was a two speed, cylinder Buick, appropriately painted white. Apart from the tent it was loaded with ropes, a small grapnel, wheel chains, tins of petrol and oil, a canvas cover, tin wash basin, picnic basket, spare tubes and a good selection of tools. Petrol, the wooden cases each containing two four gallon tins that preceded petrol pumps, was collected en route from points to which it had been railed, namely Grootvlei Colliery, Harrismith and Ladysmith. Further down in Natal it would be available at trading stores. Crossing the Vaal at "de Villiersdorp" by the pont, since the drift proved too deep at three feet, they passed through Frankfort, spent a windy night in the tent and reached Harrismith and the Royal Hotel at dusk on the third day. An attempt to travel via Witzie's Hoek Pass was abandoned when Mrs. Waugh became alarmed at the menacing attitude of black passersby, so it was back to Harrismith for the alternative van Reenen's Pass route. The railway had caused the once-vital wagon pass to fall into disuse and it was not until the Buick had taken a severe buffeting, and two nights had been spent with an intervening distance of fifteen miles, that Ladysmith and its welcome Royal Hotel was reached.
The main Natal high road, stretching 150 miles to Durban, was described as “magnificent, well-built, drained and bridged” (one wonders how it would strike today’s motorists). Mention was made, however of the great hill after Estcourt, still formidable today, which was successfully climbed on the lower of only two gears at a steady two miles and hour! Thereafter the travellers found the going easy and the weather and scenery delightful. With overnight stops at howick and Hillcrest they drove proudly down West Street after ten days actual motoring.
In Mr. Waugh’s words – “Thus we finished a trip which with all its hard work was most enjoyable. The car behaved splendidly throughout and there was no stoppage from any mechanical fault or fault of manufacture. The actual distance from Johannesburg to Durban was 412 miles and the total mileage actually covered was 462, being measured by a tested Stweart speedometer.”
The American “Stewart” speedometer was a popular accessory at the time when speedometers were seldom supplied as standard equipment. The agents were 'The Johannesburg Motor Mart'.
Johnston, R.H. (1979). “An early motor journey: Johannesburg to Durban in 1912”, Africana Notes and News, 23(7), pp.285-6.

Common forms of transport of people and goods on land today

Today we use cars, trucks, trains, buses, motorbikes and bicycles to transport people and goods.

There are now so many cars that many people are worried about congestion and the effect this is having on our world and our health.

Many people think we should walk, cycle or use Public Transport in the future instead of travelling by car. Public Transport such as buses, trains, metro and trams are a much more efficient use of fuel because they can carry lots of passengers at once.

Transport has changed and it will change some more in the future. Perhaps we will all get to travel into space! But walking and cycling might be the most popular ways to travel in the future as we all try to stay fit and healthy and look after our planet!

Impact of transport on our health and environment
This is not presently a curriculum requirement, but provides for important further reading and additional classroom activities that help the learners to understand the impact of transport, not only on our movements, but on our plant and health.

SAHO is still developing content for this section. If you have any content to send us or suggestions please click on 'contribute'.

Bicycles and Motorbikes

The first bicycle was developed between 1790 and 1817. It was a bit different from today's cycles. The pedals are connected to the back wheel with a chain, and as the rider pedals, the wheels turn. The first bicycle did not have pedals, and the rider had to steer it by pushing his or her feet along the ground. These vehicles were not called bicycles in those days. They were given various other names as they developed.

During the 19th century the cycle developed quite a bit. First, the German von Drais developed a cycle whose front wheel could be steered. In other words, it could turn in different directions so that the rider could go in the direction he wanted simply by turning the handles bars. It was called the 'Draisienne' or 'Dandy Horse'. Then the Scotsman MacMillan made the first cycle with pedals in 1839. In the 1860s the 'velocipede' was invented in France. This vehicle was powered by pedals which were attached to the front wheel. The bigger the wheel was, the faster the velocipede could go. This led to cycles with very large front wheels and smaller back wheels. They were called Penny Farthings in England, because the front wheel represented a English coin called a penny, and the back wheel a much smaller coin called a farthing. But these cycles were very dangerous because the rider would sit very high up, on top of the front wheel. Because the front wheel was so big, they could also go very fast. So when the rider hit a bad spot in the road, he would fall over the front wheel and get seriously injured. Some people were even killed in this way.

The bicycle as we know it today was invented in England in 1885. It had two wheels that were the same size and was much safer than the Penny Farthing. Further developments were made in the following 20 or so years, for example pneumatic tyres, gears and engines were added.

Gottlieb Daimler developed the motorcycle in 1885. His was not the first attempt to motorise bicycles. Earlier attempts included experiments where steam engines were attached to bicycles. But they did not work so well, and it was only when the petrol engine was invented that motorcycles really became practical. Today, motorised bicycles include the motorcycle (also called the motorbike), mopeds and scooters.

For more on the history of railways, trains and trams, go to: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motorcycle OR www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scooter

There are many variations on the bicycle. In circuses, you might see clowns riding on one big wheel with pedals. That is called a monocycle. A cycle with three wheels is called a tricycle. 'Mono' means one, 'bi' means two and 'tri' means three. You also get cycles that have saddles and pedals for two riders. They are called tandems.

Other forms of wheeled transport

There are also other ways to travel with wheels. One is by rickshaw, a two-wheeled cart in which one or two or so people can ride. It is pulled by another person. The rickshaw was invented in Japan and also became popular in China and India. In South Africa, people can take rickshaw rides in Durban for fun.

Two other types of wheeled vehicles are skateboards and rollerskates.

Activities on forms of wheeled transport

A street scene today. Source: Marneweck, L., R. Siebörger & L. Torr. (1995). Making History Standard 4. Johannesburg: Heinemann, p. 2.

A Street scene in the 1920s. Source: Marneweck, L., R. Siebörger & L. Torr. (1995). Making History Standard 4. Johannesburg: Heinemann, p. 80.

Activity 1
1. Look at the two pictures. The one is what a busy street would look like in the 1920s, the other is what it would look like today. In each picture, find at least 6 ways in which people travelled, writing these in two columns in your notebooks.
2. Describe how the ways in which we travel have changed, and how some of them have stayed the same (the similarities and differences).
Activity 2
1. Create an illustrated timeline to show how transport has changed from when walking was our only choice, to today, now that we have various forms of transport and we walk as a good and healthy choice now and for the future. You need to try to remember the order of when these methods of transport were first used: a. Bicycle b. Car c. Horses d. Rocket e. Horse and wagon f. Bus g. Trains h. Donkeys i. Canal boats

Last updated : 08-Feb-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 13-Oct-2011

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