Innovation in Transportation

Screenshot of the Red Bull Stratos jump from Flickr user brewbooks
Red Bull Stratos

This weekend, I watched something both brilliant and insane at the same time. Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon from an altitude of 128,000 feet. He traveled a distance of 24.2 miles in about 9 minutes and broke the speed of sound in the process. While watching this, I was also preparing for a road trip to do some maintenance for a customer. As I thought about how far I would be traveling and how long it would take, I wondered what it would be like to make my trip 150 years ago.

The Prairie Schooner

Innovation from the 1800s
Innovation in the 1800s

As this article from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park explains the covered wagons of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s typically traveled between 10 and 15 miles per day. This was the height of innovation in transportation for that era. We were still almost 50 years away from Ford’s Model T. If you were driving a wagon train in the 1860s, it might have taken you two to three days to travel the distance Baumgartner traveled in nine minutes.

At that point in history, I wonder if the coach builders could even understand the concept of taking an inch, dividing it into a thousand parts, and measuring components within one thousandth of an inch. Today, measurements of that level are trivial. We have built 12 foot Single Axis tables that were accurate to plus or minus a thousandth of an inch.

Innovations from the covered wagon, through the Model T, to today

During the days of wagon building, individual coach builders would take a standard design, but build each component specific to the wagon being built at the time. As you traveled across the country, you had to be able to find a woodworker or blacksmith who could make a replacement part should your wagon break down. Innovation was a very individual thing, where the ability to create came down to certain craftsmen. Production runs and standardization of parts didn’t come about en masse until Henry Ford adapted the assembly line concept from the meat packing industry and the interchangeable part concepts from the realms of firearms and Whitney’s cotton gin to create the first automotive mass-production system.

Today, Ford’s assembly line has been enhanced through innovations like Toyota’s Production System (TPS) and the evolution of total quality management (TQM) into lean manufacturing. When Henry Ford built his Model T, you got the car Ford wanted to build. Customization and options weren’t available and it took about 12 hours start to finish to build a car. Today, you can get a Camry built to your specs in about 20 hours.

Innovation in the future

In the 1860s, I doubt a pioneer crossing the frontier could have imagined the innovation behind Ford’s horseless carriage. When Ford built the Model T, he wouldn’t have believed that people could order a car customized to their needs and still have it produced in a matter of hours. Before this weekend, I don’t know that anyone would have conceived of a person traveling faster than the speed of sound propelled only by the force of gravity. While I sit in the driver’s seat of our company van and drive 600 miles in a day to get to my customer’s facility, I might just pass the miles thinking about how innovation will change the face of travel 150 years from now.

What do you think? What will transportation look like in the future? Will we ever have our Jetsons flying cars? Let me know in the comments box below, or on our Facebook page.