Transport Systems

Transport systems may be classified into three main groups according to the loads they normally carry, passenger, freight or military. Some are shared by more than one of these groups; for example during the war some passenger ships were used for troop and weaponry transport, and trains often carry both passengers and freight.

We have at our disposal a variety of transport systems for use over land, sea and air - and, although still in its infancy, into space. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on its application.

Aircraft travel over both land and sea and access places difficult or impossible to reach by other means, very quickly.
Ships are much slower and are more limited in their access but can carry enormous loads.
Rail services can also handle heavy loads, but are limited to accessing places to which rail lines have been provided.
Road transport is very flexible and can handle reasonably heavy loads, but delivery at times may be slow or unreliable due to traffic and other conditions.
Each of these systems has undergone changes over the years, and some of these changes will be discusssed here.


Go to Cars to see some features found in old cars, or go to Old Cars to see pictures of some old cars, or to British Cars to read some surprising facts about famous British car brands.

Road transport vehicles have changed immensely since the '40s. Cars are much faster, more comfortable, safer, and have many features that were never dreamed of back then. Trucks and buses carry much greater loads, and other forms, like cycles and scooters are barely recognizable as descendants of the older ones.
Even our stations and bus stops are unrecognizable from those of our youth.

Picture of an old-style bus stop Picture of old timber-truck
Picture of a modern road train transporting a load of cars Picture of an ultra-modern bus stop in Canada

Roads are the oldest and by far the largest of the transport systems, and allow personal travel (pedestrian, cycle and car), community travel (buses and coaches), and service travel (emergency, commercial and heavy goods vehicles).
As roads became more numerous, and traffic speed and numbers increased, ways were invented to make road traffic safer and more convenient.
One of these was the prioritising of roads, with highway and super-highway traffic being allowed unimpeded access, while intercepting-road traffic was obliged to give them right-of-way. Lesser roads were controlled by various signs indicating their need to stop or slow down to allow major-road traffic to pass. Traffic lights were invented in 1912, using only red and green indicators. Since then, several systems have been used at various times. All allow for a "preparation time" when drivers are cautioned, usually by a yellow or amber light, that the lights are about to change from green to red or vice-versa. In some areas, a clock-face type of indicator was used, where a sweep-hand rotated over a face with red, yellow and green segments. Roundabouts, with a central unused area, are often used instead of traffic indicators where traffic is light. These allow traffic in all directions to pass unimpeded if no other traffic is present. Many other signs are used to warn of dangerous sections, and speed limits are imposed according to the area through which the road passes.

Road surfaces tend to become slippery at times from oil or chemical spills, loose gravel or sand, or rain or ice, causing braking problems for vehicles. Various methods have been used to reduce this problem. Salt is sometimes applied to icy road surfaces, to melt the ice. Road surfaces are given a "camber" or slope to the sides to allow water to drain away. Road surface materials that give better braking assistance are used.


The term "cycles" is used here in the broadest sense, to refer to any transport device not intended for multi-passenger use.


Picture of first bike, the "boneshaker" velocipede
Picture of a penny-farthing bike
Picture of a typical bike a few years ago
Typical 1950's bike
Picture of modern bike with shock absorbers
Modern mountain bike

The first bicycle, the "boneshaker" was built around 1860. Bikes were referred to as velocipedes.
Around 1866 the "penny-farthing" was built, with a huge front wheel and a tiny rear wheel. The intention was to cover more distance per pedal rotation.
In 1869, solid rubber tyres were fitted, giving a degree of comfort to riders.
In 1870 the unicycle (one-wheeler) was made. It mainly featured in circus acts as it was difficult to ride.
In 1879 chain-driven bikes were produced. Prior to this, pedalling was done on the front wheel only, in a similar manner to childrens tricycles today.
In 1888 inflatable tyres were fitted, giving much greater comfort.
In 1898 the "free-wheel" was invented, allowing the rider to cruise downhill without pedalling.
In 1937, derailleur gear-changing was invented. Prior to this, gears were changed manually after dismounting.
In 1994 disk brakes became available. These were more efficient than block brakes, and because they were inside the wheel hub, were less affected by rain.

Motorcycles and scooters

Picture of Roper cycle (1868)
1868 Roper
Picture of Butler petrol cycle (1884)
1884 Butler petrol
Picture of 1922 Triumph motor cycle
1922 Triumph H
Picture of Modern BMW motorcycle
BMW bike

The first "motorcycle" was Roper's steam velocipede, in 1868. Roper died of a heart attack while riding it a few years later.
Bernardi's 1882 motorized tricycle is reported as the first motorcycle powered by an internal combustion engine.
The British company Triumph Motorcycles sold more than 30,000 of its Triumph Type H model to allied forces during the war. With the rear wheel driven by a belt, the Model H was fitted with a 499cc air-cooled four-stroke single-cylinder engine.
Modern motorcycles are of course much more powerful and are designed for higher speeds. Wind-drag becomes significant and fairing is fitted to reduce this.
There are some designers now producing cycles that blur the distinction between bicycles and motorcycles. "Hybrids", with pedal-assisted electric drive, regenerative braking, lightweight fiberglass shell, and computerised control panel are becoming progressively more common.

Skates and skateboards

Skates come in four basic types: roller skates, inline skates, skateboards, and ice skates.

Roller skates and inline skates

Picture of Quad roller skate picture of inline skate

These are pairs of small platforms with three, four or five rollers or wheels underneath that can be attached, one to each foot, allowing the user to travel forward or backward by placing one foot perpendicular to the other and applying thrust. Inline skates are really a subset of roller skates (even though inline skates were invented earlier), but generally the term "roller skate" refers to "quad skates", those with the wheels in a square formation while inline skates refers to those with the wheels in a single line along the platform.
The first recorded skates were invented in 1760 by John Joseph Merlin. These were inline skates with small metal wheels. The first square-configuration skates did not arrive until over a century later, in 1863. These were termed "quad skates" and were invented by James Leonard Plimpton in New York. These were much easier to steer, by shifting the weight to either side on a rubber cushion.
In 1877, William Brown and Joseph Henry Hughes fitted ball-bearing races to the wheels, making them capable of higher speed and faster acceleration. In 1876 the front toe stop was produced, giving skaters the ability to stop quickly by tipping the skate onto its toe.
In 1979, Scott Olson and Brennan Olson of Minneapolis, created inline skates for off-ice ice hockey training, and later launched the Rollerblade company.
The design of both types of skate has been improved with softer, more comfortable shoes, more durable wheels and improved shaping.


The exact time of the appearance of skateboards is a bit unclear, but there are reports of French children in Paris riding on boards with roller skate wheels attached to them in late 1944. However skateboarding or "sidewalk surfing", as it was known, grew from surfers in California in the 60's who wanted an activity to pursue when surf was not running. It was performed barefoot and skaters used surfing style and maneuvers.

Picture of a skateboard

Modern skateboards generally consist of a board (deck) made of several layers of wood, coated with polyurethane, and fitted with two " trucks", each with two polyurethane wheels.
There is often an abrasive sheet of "grip tape" glued to the upper surface to assist with grip. The board is usually concave, to assist with tricky manoeuvres. Motorised models are now made, powered by an electric motor and battery.

Ice skates

Picture of an ice skate

The earliest ice skating is believed to have happened in southern Finland more than 3,000 years ago, using flat bone strapped to the feet. This allowed the wearer to glide over the ice, although steering would have been very difficult.
Adding sharpened edges to ice skates was invented by the Dutch in the 13th or 14th century, and these allowed steering, by lifting the feet and placing them at the required angle. Modern skates still use this technique.
There are two basic styles of ice skate: speed skates, and figure skates. The figure skate, used for dance routines etc. on ice, has a shorter blade that gives more flexibility to the movement of the skater.


Picture of a Zimmer frame

Walkers, or Zimmer frames provide more support than a cane and are lighter, less bulky and easier to propel than a wheelchair.

Picture of a RollatorPicture of a wheelchair

Wheelchairs may be manually propelled either by the user or by an aide, or electrically powered. The first recorded use of self-propelled chairs by disabled people in Europe dates to the 17th century, when Johann Hautsch made several rolling chairs in N├╝rnberg, and about 1655 disabled German watchmaker Stephan Farfler made a three-wheeled chair that he could propel by use of a rotary handle on the front wheel. In the 19th century, push-rims mounted on the outside of the rear wheels allowing self-propulsion became available. Wheelchairs progressively became lighter, more robust, more comfortable and easier to use, and battery-power and electronic controls became common features.

Picture of a Papaw Hybrid cycle

Hybrid designs now provide power-assistance to the push-rims from electric motors for moving and for braking. These are called PAPAWs, for Push-rim Activated Power Assisted Wheelchairs.


Picture of a Segway

I feel this machine warrants its own section, as its use is becoming progressively more common for "normal" transport.

The Segway PT (Personal Transporter) is a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery-powered electric vehicle invented by Dean Kamen. It uses gyroscopic devices, sensors and electric motors to stay upright and drive forward or backward.

A basic gyroscope is a spinning wheel inside a stable frame. A spinning object resists changes to its axis of rotation, and a wheel spinning in the horizontal plane will try to stay level, even when forces are applied to change this.

The Segway consists of a small platform mounted above two wheels, and a vertical bar with handles at the top. The various motors, gyroscopes and sensors are mounted below the platform.

The rider stands on the platform, holding onto the handlebar. To steer, they shift the handlebar to the left or right, tilting the platform. Gyroscopic sensors detect this and respond by adjusting the speeds of the wheels, each with its own electric motor, in either direction.


Steam trains were once the major bulk land transport available Picture of Japanese Shinkansen high-speed train

For information about trains, goto the Trains page, or to see some famous old trains, go to the Steam Trains page. For explanations of some of the terminology related to trains, see the Train Terminology page.

Since mechanised railways first appeared in the early 20th century, there have been significant changes in their design, construction and function.

Rail tracks have both advantages and disadvantages over road tansport. The most obvious disadvantage is that the vehicles are confined to points along the rail route, and other points must be serviced by alternative means - most often buses for passengers, trucks for freight.
Another, associated problem is that if there is a breakdown or accident on the track, the route is unusable for some time. This is often remedied by trains travelling from both directions to their nearest access point, swapping loads and returning along their own secion.
A big advantage is that much heavier loads can be transferred quickly and securely from point to point. Rails can be more readily examined and maintained than roads due to their structure and defined routes.

Some of the problems in designing and building railways are

  • The immense weight of rail traffic being supported by the rails means their foundation must be extremely solid and stable.
  • While travelling, a train is constantly adjusting its path, oscillating between the two rails. This, as well as curves in the track, places a huge lateral strain and wear on the rails, so the sleeper-system must control this.
  • Rises and falls in the terrain may need to be dealt with by tunneling or bridging, as the impact of a train on the track at any rise places huge stress on the rails, and falls in levels increase the risk of "floating" and possible derailment.
  • The length of rolling stock - for example passenger carriages - means that they need wide curves where changes in track direction occur. For this reason "bogeys" of four, or sometimes six or eight wheels, are placed at each end of the carriage. But this has the effect of concentrating the weight of the load at these points.
  • Heat causes expansion in metals, and as the rails expand in hot weather their length increases, which could cause the rails to buckle. A small gap is left between lengths of rail to accommodate this. This gap is also a source for impact between the wheel and the rail.


Ships in the olden days were not capable of carrying the great loads carried today Picture of modern cargo ship

Ships today are vastly different and there are many more types than in my younger days.
Modern warships are immensely powerful, with nuclear warheads, rockets that follow changes in a target's location, and aircraft that deploy to protect the ship or other items.
Cruise ships carry thousands of passsengers in absolute luxury, with shops, theatres and swimming pools now the norm, rather than the exception.
Dedicated Service vessels are used to lay and maintain undersea cables, transport oil and other cargo between countries, search for and rescue passengers and crew of other vessels, and perform many more functions.
To see more on this, go to the Ships page.


To read about early and modern fighter aircraft, go to the Fighter Aircraft page

The Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903. They could never have dreamed of the technology applied to flight now.

The first practical radar was built in 1935, but at the time it was used in meteorological, not aircraft applications.

Picture of the first helicopter,VS300 (1939) Picture of the first jet aircraft, HE178 (1939)

Jet engines were invented in 1937, and the first jet-propelled flight was made in 1939 in the Heinkel HE178. This was the same year that the first helicopter, the VS300 was built.

Although aircraft had been used for some time in warfare situations, the 1945 invention of nuclear bombs increased the strategic importance of military aircraft. Even a moderate fleet of long-range bombers could deliver a deadly blow to the enemy.

During World War 2, Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) and Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) were both used in aircraft for the first time, and the Messerschmitt ME262 jet fighter, the Flying Fortress and Superfortress high altitude heavy bombers were made and played a very important part in the war.

The sound barrier (mach 1, approx 767 MPH) was broken for the first time in 1947.

The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser was a large long-range airliner, first flown on July 8, 1947. Its design included two passenger decks and a pressurized cabin, a relatively new feature on transport aircraft. It could carry up to 100 passengers on the main deck plus 14 in the lower deck lounge.

In 1949 the De Haviland Comet, the first commercial jet aircraft, appeared. It had four turbojet engines, a pressurised fuselage, and large square windows. For the era, it offered a relatively quiet, comfortable passenger cabin, and in 1952 it was used for regular passenger flights between London and South Africa.

In 1953 the Learjet 23 became the first small jet aircraft to enter mass production, powered by 2 turbojet engines and capable of carrying 5 passengers plus 2 crew.

In 1969, the Boeing 747 became the first wide-bodied passenger plane. It used turbofan combustion".

The Concorde jet arrived in 1976, and was capable of carrying 100 passengers at over 1500 MPH, or mach 2. But a serious accident in 2000 and its subsequent grounding for about a year, coupled with high maintenance costs, led to its decommissioning in 2003.

Picture of a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber Picture of F117 Stealth fighter plane

The B2 Flying Wing bomber was built in the '90s. The B-2 Spirit (1997) has a top speed of 1,010 km/h and a range of over 11000 km. The F117 Nighthawk Stealth fighter, at right, was introduced in 1983, and retired in 2008. It has a top speed of 993 km/h (mach 0.92) and a range of 1720 km. Both were designed to be invisible to radar and other systems, using a system called Stealth Technology. Changes to aircraft shape and surface composition are a major part of stealth technology, and both are used extensively by several countries now.

Supersonic interceptor aircraft were used for a time, but by 1955 attention shifted to guided surface-to-air missiles. Then once again, a new technology was needed when a new type of nuclear-carrying platform, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) appeared. This signalled the start of the Space Race between the nations.

Aeroflot, of The USSR, was the first airline in the world to operate sustained regular jet services in 1956 with the Tupolev Tu-104 (81 passengers). The American Boeing 707 and DC-8 (both from 140 to 219 passengers) followed in 1958, establishing new levels of comfort and safety. This ushered in the age of mass commercial air travel, the Jet Age.

The Boeing 747 ("Jumbo"), first flown in 1970, was at the time the largest commercial passenger aircraft ever to fly, capable of carrrying 660 passengers, but was superseded by the Airbus A380, which is capable of carrying up to 853 passengers.

In 1975 Aeroflot introduced the first supersonic passenger plane, the Tu-144, and in 1976 British Airways and Air France began supersonic service across the Atlantic with Concorde.

Picture of World War 2 P47 Thunderbolt fighter plane Picture of F22 Raptor

The last quarter of the 20th century saw a change of emphasis, from flight speeds, distances and materials technology to digital applications in both flight avionics, and aircraft design and manufacturing techniques.
Digital "fly-by-wire" systems use computer-techmology to interpret the commands given by the pilot, and apply them to the controls. They are also capable of checking to ensure that the commands will not cause unrecoverable state of flight for the plane, and of initiating control commands without the need for pilot action. Digital technology also allowed subsonic military aviation to begin eliminating the pilot in favor of remotely operated or completely autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In October 2003 the first totally autonomous flight across the Atlantic by a computer-controlled model aircraft was performed. UAVs are now an established feature of modern warfare.

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