Transport history

How 19th century innovators transformed travel tech


Flinders Street West, Melbourne, 1910. Image: State Library Victoria

Personal travel changed in leaps and bounds.

The transport revolution of the 20th century was incremental when compared to the wide-ranging transport technologies that emerged in the 19th century. The invention of bicycles, trams, trains, ocean-going steamers and cars dramatically changed our capabilities as humans.

Dr Maxwell Gordon Lay FTSE, author of The Harnessing of Power: How 19th Century Transport Innovators Transformed the Way the World Operates, explains that the ability to routinely travel long distances quickly was not an important human need, and received little evolutionary priority. In other words, humans evolved in a “low speed world”.

This is an edited extract from the book, exploring the history of personal travel technologies.

For most people, walking was the only available means of travelling within towns and between towns. It was still a very common means of long-distance travel in the 18th century. For instance in England many soldiers would be encountered being redeployed around the country or travelling to and from training camps and embarkation ports.

A revealing mid-18th century travel example occurred when the famous blind English road-builder, John Metcalf, was in London with his local member of Parliament, Colonel Liddle. Liddle offered Metcalf a ride home to Knaresborough in his carriage, a journey of some 300km. Metcalf declined and said he preferred to walk home.

Blind, on foot, and unfamiliar with route, he completed the journey in six days. The Colonel and his carriage took eight days.

Personal travel by riding on the backs of animals or in animal-drawn vehicles was a matter of perceived convenience and not of time saving. Until the 18th century, there was little difference between vehicular personal travel and freight haulage as both used wagon-style vehicles which travelled at walking speed.

Thank the Celts for transport today

Much of the technology appears to have been of Celtic origin. The Celts began building light and sophisticated wheels in about 700 BC. Key features were spoked wheels with applied wear-resistant running surfaces and iron was widely used in Celtic vehicles and harnesses.

A prime example of an early Celtic vehicle with many advanced features is the Dejbjerg wagon from about 50 BC and found well-preserved in the 1870s in a Danish swamp.

Wagons for transporting people came into prominence in the 13th century although many of the innovations were reinventions of much earlier Celtic technology.

A key need was to provide passengers with a smooth ride. However, a wagon with four rigidly attached wheels will always provide a rough ride on road surfaces which are not perfectly flat planes. This is because, as a matter of geometry, the rigid wagon can only make contact at three points. The fourth point is poised above the road surface, ready to descend with a rattling bump.

The Celts found a way around this problem. They had developed good leatherworking skills for harness making, and were able to make leather straps to suspend the vehicle cabin. This reduced the previous abruptness of the bumps and the Roman philosopher Seneca said that his carriage travelled so smoothly that he could write whilst on a journey.

The term “suspension” is still used to describe ride-softening devices in modern vehicles, although they no longer work as suspension devices.

Vehicle technology only slowly improved over the next millennium. The main developments were better harnesses and lighter and stronger wheels.

How iron quickened our pace

Increases in travel speed above walking began to occur early in the 17th century, mainly as a consequence of greater demands by the wealthy for personal travel and, at the supply end, to a wider use of iron in vehicle construction. This use of iron introduces a main thesis of this book.

Iron had many useful transport applications. However, iron making was still a craft rather than a manufacturing process, so its spreading use in vehicles indicated strong market demands. The use of iron for bits and stirrups greatly enhanced the usefulness of horse riding.

For vehicles, iron rivets simplified the attachment of the hauling part of the harness to the vehicle being hauled. Iron studs and plates were used to prevent the rapid wear of wooden rims and iron pins were used to retain the wheel on the axle.

The wearing surface between the wheel and the axle was a major operating problem. The bearing surfaces themselves were heavily lubricated with animal fats and occasionally employed some cylindrical metal pieces although these were more likely to have been the softer bronze, rather than iron.

Iron coil springs were invented in England in 1625 and were soon used to support coach bodies at each of their four corners. A major advance demonstrating the increasing availability of useful pieces of iron occurred in the 1660s in Prussian Berlin where Philip di Chiesa, a person of Italian extraction born near Avignon, greatly improved the rideability of coaches by hanging the leather suspension straps from cantilevers made of flat iron.

Such leaf springs are still used in many current vehicles. Di Chiesa’s vehicles were called Berliners. They were relatively large with an enclosed passenger area. The leather straps were subsequently replaced by iron links.

Germany was then the centre of quality coach-building. Increased competition from the German Berliners led to further developments in Britain, including the work of the multi-talented Robert Hooke and his definition and scientific measurement of the elasticity of iron in the 1670s.

Elliptical leaf springs were developed by Obadiah Elliot in London in 1804 and later I describe how they produced a quantum jump in coach performance.

Elliot was a well-known coach-maker who patented his invention in 1805. The introduction of iron rim brakes in 1690 allowed larger teams of horses to be used to power the coaches. However, braking as we now know it was never a serious issue at the speeds of a horse-drawn coach and the brakes’ major role was to slow vehicles descending steep hills.


Dr Max Lay AM FTSE

Dr Maxwell Gordon Lay is a widely recognised expert in both road technology and road history. His Handbook of Road Technology is now in its fourth international edition, and his world history of roads, Ways of the World, has been a major work in this field for two decades. In 2005, Dr Lay was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia and in 2000, the Australian Road Research Board named its library the “M.G. Lay Library” to honour “his passion for the dissemination of high quality professional information”. In 2014, Dr Lay was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Medal, the highest award offered by the Australian engineering profession.