For most of human history people did not travel. You were born where you were born and you went where your feet could take you. The better off would have access to a horse, but even with the added benefit of a 1 horse-power engine you couldn’t easily travel far & would be doing well to cover more than 30 miles a day along the poor dirt tracks of Tudor Britain, and it was far from safe.
Most people only travelled as part of their job – traders, mule trains, that sort of thing – or perhaps when at war or on pilgrimage. In general, transport of goods and people was by water, normally along shallow coastal routes, but some rivers were freely navigable. On average you were unlikely to stray more than 10 miles from the town in which you were born.
Carriages became available for hire in London in 1605, and by the second half of the century there were already traffic jams. In 1667 Samuel Pepys considered it embarrassing to be seen in a hired hackney carriage, freely available to all. Just a year later Pepys felt much more comfortable, as by then he had his own coach and a liveried footman. Yet beyond the capital transport options remained severely limited even for the wealthy.
However, technological innovation, driven by the science of the enlightenment, continued, and transport improved markedly through the 17th & 18th centuries. The first major piece of technology in land-travel innovation was the stagecoach, a heavy and cumbersome vehicle, without suspension, introduced in Britain in the 1640s.
Road technology was the next innovation. In an attempt to limit highway robbery and improve the comfort of travel in England the “Highways Act, 1663” enabled justices of the peace for Hertfordshire, Hungtingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire to levy tolls on their part of the Great North Road, and the first turnpike was erected at Wadesmill, Hertfordshire. Over time the development of more comfortable coaches, which by 1680 even came with windows and rudimentary suspension, encouraged use over ever longer distances. Slowly, the world began to travel overland…
The population of the England in 1700 was approximately 6 million.
By 1700 there were 7 “turnpike trusts”, private companies developing and maintaining roads. Turnpike trustees were empowered to borrow capital for road repair against the expected income from future tolls. The development of a stockmarket and basic financial concepts in London and Europe at this time, and the resulting availability of capital, meant that the turnpike business boomed – between 10 and 40 turnpike trusts were set up each year in the 18th century, and the road network grew rapidly.
Even with these improvements travel remained slow by modern standards. It would take more than three days to travel from London to York by stagecoach in 1750, and almost 10 days to get to Edinburgh.
The majority of the turnpikes in England and Wales were completed by 1770, and for a while transport technology stagnated. It’s worth remembering that this transport innovation was from the private sector. Roads were only nationalised, as a public good too important to be left in private hands, in the mid 19th Century.
In 1776 James Watt, a Scot, developed the separate condensing engine, improving the design of Newcomen’s beam engine. The Industrial revolution truly began, transforming the world through the conversion of ancient sunlight, compressed over geologic time into coal, and finally transformed into mechanical energy by human ingenuity.
In 1780 the annual coal output from Britain was 6 ¼ million long tons, yet none of this was used for transport. A few inventors saw the technological possibilities: William Murdoch, another scot, built a prototype steam locomotive in 1784. The first full-scale working locomotive was built by Richard Trevithick in 1804, with the world’s first railway journey taking place on the 21st February, from the Pen-y-darren ironworks. In 1825 George Stephenson built the first public steam railway in the world, at Darlington, NE England. In 1829 he followed this up with the famous Rocket. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, using steam power for both passenger and freight trains. The world had changed. People could now travel using mechanical, rather than animal, energy. The pace and reach of travel would never be the same.
By the middle of the century Britain, now a populous 29 million, enjoyed a good coverage of new railways.
In 1845 a journey from London to York, which took over three days in 1750, took just over 10 hours. People, and ideas, travelled more freely than ever.
The next revolution would require a new fuel, oil, which would power first the automobile, and shortly after the greatest travel innovation of our history – the aeroplane.