After centuries of travel on horseback, a series of innovations revolutionized how people and goods move around the modern world.

Acceleration in World Travel: From London to Hong Kong

THE TRAIN

Railroads represented an astonishing innovation for the transport of people, news, and goods. For example, in 1815, it would have taken four days for news to travel between Brussels and London on horses and packet boats. In 1830, a similar distance could be traveled by trains in just one day. The implications for commerce were profound. The U.S. railroad system was expanded from the first intercity railroad in 1830 to over 9,000 miles of railroad just twenty years later. By the early twentieth century, railroads in the United States were one of the country’s major employers. Products from one corner of the country reached another, prices dropped, industry developed, settlement continued, and travel became faster and easier for those who could afford it. But despite the railroad’s transformative effects and enduring importance, it too was eclipsed by new innovations in the twentieth century. The rise of cars and paved roads led to more people traveling individually and facilitated the trucking industry, especially after World War II as the interstate highway system was expanded. And then came the plane.

A long exposure picture shows commuters walking on a Swiss Federal Railways platform at the main station in Lucerne, on August 7, 2012.

THE JET PLANE

Although the Wright Brothers made history in the early twentieth century with the first airplane and Charles Lindbergh did in 1927 with the first nonstop transatlantic flight, it was not until the postwar period that air travel truly revolutionized the transport of both people and packages. In 1945, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was established. In 1958, a Boeing 747 completed the first relatively quick passenger flight across the Atlantic. Just fifty years later, approximately 600 flights carry travelers between the United States and Europe every day.

International cargo shipping is also tied to globalization and trade. The 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which essentially introduced a free market to the airline industry, among other changes, facilitated the proliferation of commercial shipping enterprises such as FedEx and UPS. The reduction of tariffs and the increasing technological innovation beginning around the same time that the Airline Deregulation Act came into effect also made their mark.

Air Force One carrying U.S. President Barack Obama and his family flies over a neighborhood of Havana as it approaches the runway to land at the city's international airport, on March 20, 2016.

CONTAINERIZATION 

Changes have occurred not only in the skies but also across the oceans and on land. An innovation called containerization, which kicked off in earnest in the mid-1960s, contributed massively to the expansion of international trade.

In 1956, the first container ship—the brainchild of American trucking magnate Malcom McLean—headed from New Jersey to Texas. Within ten years, the uniform, rectangular shipping container would become the standard vessel for the transportation of cargo around the world.

Prior to that, cargo was shipped in an ad hoc fashion, loaded on boats or trains in packages of all shapes and sizes. The process was disorderly, time intensive, and costly, in part because large teams of unionized workers were needed to load and unload goods, some of which could go missing along the way.

The advent of containerization upended this formula, standardizing processes and drastically reducing the logistic and labor costs of shipping. Productivity skyrocketed, aided in part by additional technological innovation. Fewer workers were needed on the docks; people lost their jobs but businesses saved money. Companies also saved on insurance costs as standardization and security prevented the theft of goods. Many ports also closed.

Containerization, coupled with general trade liberalization and technological advancement, has significantly contributed to economic globalization. The results are staggering: one study determined that containerization was correlated with a 790 percent increase in international trade over twenty years among twenty-two industrialized countries.

The world’s biggest container vessel, CSCL Globe, is seen in the harbor of Hamburg, on January 13, 2015.
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