10 Travel Innovations That Made the Modern World Possible

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Where would we be without the horse, the compass, or the steam engine? Probably right where we started, since we couldn’t go anywhere. These 10 innovations have delivered us from prehistory into today’s global village. For more on these game-changing developments, tune in to National Geographic’s Origins, airing Mondays, 9/8 CST.


In the grand scheme of things, our relationship with the horse is a relatively young one. The exact dates are hard to pin down, but experts believe the first horses were likely domesticated sometime between 4000 and 6000 years ago in northern Kazakhstan. Their arrival revolutionized almost every aspect of human life, from hunting and farming to warfare and exploration. At the time, they were also considered pretty good eating.


We think of the wheel as the most basic of inventions, yet human society had progressed quite a way before the concept occurred to us. We were making sailboats, metal alloys, and musical instruments in the Bronze Age before we had the technology to craft a symmetrical, smooth axle and pair of wheels. Once we did, though, there was no stopping us; some historians say the idea was likely only invented once but quickly spread throughout the inhabited world.


The first compasses were used not for navigation, but for divination as Chinese prognosticators in the 2nd century BCE used “south-pointers” to identify ideal locations for rituals. Later, Chinese inventors recognized the navigational value of a north-pointing needle. By the year 1000 CE, compass-wielding Chinese sailors could travel all the way to Saudi Arabia without getting lost.


With a fearless attitude and a few pieces of flexible wood, the Vikings conquered the world. Their longboats were an incredibly elegant improvement on existing ships. They were shallow-bottomed and lightweight, which allowed them to sail up foreign rivers and onto the beach. They were strong enough to sail across the ocean, yet nimble enough to sail close to the wind, creating a literal world of possibility for their dauntless inhabitants.


Scottish inventor James Watt often gets all the credit, but the development of the steam engine was the product of many, many minds over hundreds of years. The very first steam engine appears in the writings of the ancient Greek mathematician Hero. Thinker after thinker tinkered with the idea, which went on to power the factories, locomotives, weaponry, and ships of the Industrial Revolution.


Our lives today rely on a steady stream of controlled explosions. Historians believe the first combustion engine was designed in the 17th century to use gunpowder as fuel. Needless to say, it did not work out. Subsequent engineers got smarter with their fuel sources, moving next to a mix of hydrogen and oxygen, coal gas, and kerosene before settling on gasoline.


The airplane is the horse of the sky. (Bear with us on this one.) Wilbur and Orville Wright may have had travel in mind when they took their first flight in 1903, but others would soon see the enormous potential of their invention. A mere eight years later, European and American military forces had begun using planes for reconnaissance and the Germans soon developed planes for combat. Before long, planes became airborne farmhands, political tools, and even recreational vehicles.


The first automobiles might as well have been spacecraft as far as the average American was concerned. The high cost of painstakingly assembling early automobiles made them rare and prohibitively expensive. But once Henry Ford got his plant up and running, travel by car became first possible, then essential, eventually transforming the American landscape.


The thing about cities is that after a while, it becomes hard to find a spare inch to breathe, let alone travel—at least at ground level. Four decades before the first skyscrapers began piling upward, a British inventor by the name of Charles Pearson first proposed heading down. London’s underground rail line opened in 1863, moving a mind-boggling 9,500,000 passengers its first year. Other cities quickly followed suit.


No canny traveling salesman wants to cross unknown parts of the country with his pockets full of cash. Early major credit cards were marketed to this very specific—and, at the time, large—demographic, before entering widespread use in the 1960s. Today, it’s hard to imagine life without them.