The story of human progress is closely tied to transportation technologies
and the sources of energy we use to power them. Energy is critical to
life on earth and for better and for worse our species is defined by
it. More than a million years ago our ancestors learned how to wield
fire. By 5500 BCE, we had harnessed the power of the wind and more than
six thousand years later the Vikings made the first known transatlantic
crossing to be followed by the European invasion that started in 1493.
It was not until 1698 that the
first crude steam engine was invented. It was built by Thomas Savery,
of England to pump water out of coal mines. The first steamboat patent
was filed by English physician John Allen in 1729 and the earliest
known steam-powered automobile was created in 1769 by French inventor
Nicolas Cugnot. The first sea-going steamboat was built by Richard
Wright in 1813. Later in the century ocean liners
began making regularly scheduled ocean crossings.
The world began its perilous spiral in
1859 with the invention of the first internal combustion engine. The
first gasoline-fueled, four-stroke cycle engine was built in Germany in
1876 and ten years later Carl Benz began the first commercial production
of motor vehicles and mass production began in the 20th century.
Powered by cheap and abundant fossil fuels the combustion engine is
king. In the 20th century the combustion engine powered the shift away
from rail and water towards cars and planes. Since World War II, the
number of vehicles on the road has risen from about 40 million to some
The first airplane was flown in
1903, by Wilbur and Orville Wright and eleven years later the first
passenger flights began. in 1927, Charles Lindbergh would make his
historic flight between New York and Paris and by the 1950 air travel
was commonplace. In 2017 there were approximately 7,800,000,000 traveled
by air and in 2016 that number is expected to be 4,100,000,000. Earth
in the 20th century there were very few airplanes, today there are
almost 40,000 planes excluding light aircraft.
first crude electric vehicle was developed more than a quarter century
before the first combustion engines. Although Robert Anderson is
recognized as the inventor of the first electric engine in 1832, it would
take more than 150 years before electric vehicles began mass production
in the 1990s. Despite increased range and lower battery costs plug-in
electric cars are less than half a percent of the vehicles on the road
today. The world is dominated by engines that burn hydrocarbons. Powered
by cheap and abundant fossil fuels the combustion engine is king.
This reliance on 19th century technology
is killing us. The climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions from
fossil fuels account for the majority of man made emissions. Cars and
planes as well as other means of transportation are responsible for
about 15 percent
of man-made carbon dioxide. The man made climate crisis is one of the
reasons that sceintists have called our times the age of the
Anthropocene. Later this month scientists are expected to formally
recognize the age of the Anthropocene. A 37 member committee of
researchers from around the world will vote on whether the Anthropocene
will be added as a new epoch to the Geological Time Scale.
By 2025 there will be a billion
vehicles on the road and there is every reason to believe that these vehicles can be electrics. While electric air travel is a much bigger
challenge we are seeing small scale examples that prove promising. We can expect to see clean energy assume a dominant role. Solar and wind are both century old technologies whose time has come. Alexandre
Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839 and Charles
F. Brush created the first electricity-generating wind turbine in 1888.
Energy in the form of light and heat from the sun made life on earth
possible and wind powered our earliest long range transportation
technologies so it fitting that solar and wind
emerged as our great hopes for the future.
and transportation have never been more important to the fate of human
civilizations. Replacing fossil fuels with clean
sources of energy and replacing the combustion engine with the electric
engine are examples of progress in the truest sense of the word.