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The Industrial Revolution: Transportation Methods’ Transformations Essay


The global trade experienced in the middle part of the 20th century can trace its roots to the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the 19th century. It is said that the Industrial Revolution is labeled as such because of its sweeping impact on society (Pierce 4). The radical changes in technology were more pronounced in Europe and the United States. The most important factor is the significant innovations in transportation technology. At the heart of all these changes is the steam engine.

The steam engine gave rise to steamships and trains. The use of ships to move cargo and people from Europe to Asia was already a common occurrence even in ancient times. But the capability to move goods and passengers at significantly faster and more cost-efficient rates was only made possible in the advent of steam engines. Furthermore, the same scientific principle was used to develop locomotives that transform the way transportation is understood inland.

The Industrial Revolution

Global trade did not happen overnight. It required incremental changes and innovations not only in the production of goods but the capability to transport raw materials, finished products, and human resources at a faster rate and lower costs. Everything can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution that paved the way for the numerous changes in the way people utilize resources. It is best understood from a technological standpoint. According to one commentary “Technology is largely concerned with the process of transformation – the transformation of raw materials into useful or aesthetically pleasing articles” (Derry & Williams 259). Rapid development in technology created new ways of manufacturing and transporting goods.

The Industrial Revolution was made possible by related technologies. For example the steam engine was used to develop steamships and trains. Steam engines were also used as a major component of factories. Steam engine powered all the factories in the 19th century Europe and America. At the same time steam engines were used to raw materials and workers into factories. This study will take a closer look at the evolution of steam engines and the Industrial Revolution from its roots in early 19th century Europe to the United States. The focus of the study is on the steam engine and how it was used in the transportation sector.

The Impact of Transportation Technology

The Industrial Revolution gave rise to new forms of transportation. In the past, rich and poor alike had to be contented with horses, horse drawn carriages and boats powered by wind and the muscles of men. But in the dawning of a new age, the people saw the spectacular impact of steamboats and trains. These inventions did not only make travel easier and faster, these new technologies also revolutionized the transportation of workers and raw materials from suppliers to factories (Pierce 4). These are key components in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in Europe and the United States.

The most important development is the use of steam engine technology in the creation of steam boats. Imagine the radical innovation from the use of sails and human powered rowboats and galleons to something that can move tons of loads over water and over long distances. It allowed businessmen and workers to travel and transport items from Europe to the United States at faster speeds but with relatively lower costs.

The steam engines made it easier to connect two continents and it encouraged businessmen to expand their reach. But the steam engine on a traditional platform was the tip of the iceberg so to speak. According to historians:

A key innovation, however, was the screw propeller, which allowed for bigger ships, and ultimately for lighter iron hulls. As late as 1874, steamships carried 90% of the cotton, ginger, indigo, rapeseed, and tea, 99% of the cowhides, and 100% of the teelseed from Calcutta to Britain, but only 20% of the jute and one-third of the rice (Findlay & O’Rourke 380).

The propeller pushed innovation to the next level and drastically changed the way people and products are transported from one continent to the next. But this is just the beginning. Incremental innovations added to the rapid change in technology. For example the compound engine made steamships more efficient “expanding the range of goods that could be transported” adding more profit to the investors (Findlay & O’Rourke 380). It must also be pointed out that the steam ships enhanced the interconnection of Europe and Asia.

The lucrative trade from these products demanded not only for more cost-efficient design in the construction of steamships but also the need for shorter routes. The global superpowers in Europe and America understood the importance of logistics. The power of steam engines provided the inspiration to increase global trade. The following describes a major achievement that greatly impacted world trade:

The opening of the 101-mile long Suez Canal on November 17, 1869, by the French Empress Eugenie, brought Asia some 4,000 miles nearer to Europe, cutting the distance between Britain and Bombay from 10,667 miles to 6,224 miles and between Britain and Calcutta from 11,900 miles to 8,083 miles. The compound engine reduced fuel requirements, and the Suez Canal made it possible to pick up coal at Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, and Aden (Findlay & O’Rourke 380).

Although the steam ship is the primary reason why transformations in transportation technology has led to increasing world trade, the development of trains and railways also played an important role during the industrialization of 19th century Europe and the United States. The importance of trains can be understood if one looks at the huge land mass of Europe and the United States. In other words key cities in Europe and the United States are no located in small island states that can be covered by steam ships alone. It was of grave importance to have a network of railways that allowed for the efficient transportation of goods from one city to the next. At the same time there is a need for an efficient system that enabled the movement of raw materials and finished products to port cities wherein steam ships are waiting to unload and carry away precious cargo from one continent to the next.

Railways were not a new idea because in the 18th century people used horse-drawn railways (Ross 30). However, the technology was revolutionized with Watt’s invention of a steam engine that provided rotary power (Ross 30). At first the general public viewed the dirty and noisy locomotives with suspicion and disdain. It was only after the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester in 1930 when English folks realized the tremendous potential of locomotives (Ross 30). Nevertheless, it was only in the middle decades of the 19th century “when train companies made more money from freight than it did from fare-paying passengers” (Ross 31). But when businessmen and the general public embraced this new technology the impact was felt from Europe to America:

Rail-building consumed iron, and later steel, in vast quantities, becoming a major stimulus to the development of the iron and steel industry. As soon as tracks were laid, railways became the cheapest and most efficient way for people to travel between cities and goods to be transported over land. Between 1851 to 1871, the freight tonnage moved by rail increased tenfold (Seccombe 81).

It was an Englishman, George Stephenson and his sons who developed the first successful steam locomotive that they christened as the Rocket in 1829 and according to historians, “Soon, railroads based on steam locomotives grew explosively across England. In just fifteen years, 2441 miles of track had been laid to carry not only cargo but people as well” (Sakolsky 6). Other experts in this field provided insights regarding the significance of the steam locomotive in assuring the success of the Industrial Revolution by suggesting that transport improvements operate can be viewed as both a cause and effect:

They are an effect because the steam-engine […] made possible new modes of transport by sea, land, and air. But the new means of transport were also a cause of industrial change. Without them bulky and heavy materials – in the first phase, coal and iron, and later, steel, petroleum, Malayan tin, and rubber – could never have been concentrated for manufacture, nor cold the food have been found for the manufacturing populations (1993, 364).

The United States emulated the European’s desire to build extensive railway networks and as a result, “After 1848, Chicago became the main hub for transportation with many different rail lines and a canal system terminating there” (Sakolsky 7).Observers could take note that the extensive global trade experienced I the 21st century traced back to two major developments in the history of mankind. The first one is the Industrial Revolution that occurred in the 19th century. The second event pertains to the revolution of industries as a direct result in the transformation of transportation technology.

Shrinking the Globe

The Industrial Revolution gave way to global trade because of the rapid development of transportation technology. The emergence of the steam engine was the first major step towards globalization. The steam engine enabled mankind to break free from the ancient methods of doing farm work and moving goods from one place to the next.

The steam engine paved the way for steam ships and locomotives. The steam engine provided a means to use a cheap energy sources at that time. Coal can be easily harvested and used. As a result there is a readily available energy source that can be converted into mechanical energy. The steam engine made a direct impact to two major areas, the need for power and mobility. Thus, the steam engine was used in the factory and the transportation needs of businessmen.


The Industrial Revolution led to global trade. But all these things could not have been possible without the radical transformation in transportation technology. The most important breakthrough is the development of steam engine technology. It became the building block to create steam ships and trains. Steam ships allowed for a more efficient way to connect continents and move significant loads at a more cost-efficient rate. Agricultural products from Asia can reach Europe and the United States while manufactured goods can be easily transported from industrialized nations to their colonies. The trains on the other hand strengthened the transportation capability inland.

Works Cited

Derry, Thomas and Trevor Williams. A Short History of Technology: From the Earliest Times to A.D. 1900. New York: Dover, 1993. Print.

Findlay, Ronald and Kevin O’Rourke. Power and Plenty Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millenium. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007. Print.

Pierce, Alan. The Industrial Revolution. MN: ABDO Publishing, 2004. Print.

Ross, Stewart. The Industrial Revolution. London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 2008. Print.

Sakolsky, Josh. Critical Perspectives on the Industrial Revolution. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2005. Print.

Seccombe, Wally. Weathering the Storm: Working-Class Families from the Industrial Revolution. New York: Verso Publishing, 1995. Print.

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