Advancements in transportation have played a key role in the growth of our nation. U.S.government policies have also had a considerable impact on the development of transport as we know it today. In this series of three lessons, the students examine the advancements in automobiles, roads, airlines and airports.


Benefit, Costs, Exports, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Imports, Incentive, Innovation, Inventors, Investment, Markets, Price, Profit, Specialization, Technological Changes


  • Distinguish between invention, innovation, and investments in infrastructure.
  • Explain how economic incentives encouraged technological change and the capital investments that led to the Transportation Revolution.
  • Explore how advancements in transportation dramatically transformed trade and promoted economic growth in the United States.
  • Create a timeline illustrating advancements in transportation technology that have occurred since the U.S. declared its independence in 1776.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Using an overhead or LCD projector, show students Visual 1, which is a photo of one of the first internal combustion engines. Ask the students to identify what it is. If they are unsuccessful, show them Visual 2, which is a typical modern internal combustion engine. At least a few students in your class will probably recognize the latter; if they don’t, you will have to explain that both are images of internal combustion engines.

Tell the students:

The machine in Visual 1 is one of the first internal combustion engines. German inventors Nicolaus Otto and Eugen Langen developed it in 1876. Explain that internal combustion engines work by burning fuel in a confined space called a combustion chamber. The pressure of the resulting gases force machine parts (such as a piston, for example), a rotor, or even the engine itself to move. The internal combustion engine is the machine that nearly all cars, trucks, and planes use today as a source of power. In this lesson, you will discover how inventors and innovators applied this new technology to transportation during the 20th century, totally transforming how people live, work, and play.

Instruct the students to fold a piece of paper so that it has three columns. At the top of the first column, direct them to write "Invention." At the top of the second and third columns, direct them to write "Innovation" and "Infrastructure," respectively. Challenge them to find at least five examples of each as they complete the lesson.

[Note to the teacher: If you chose not to use the first lesson in this series, write the three words on the board and ask the students what they think the words mean. If the students have difficulty doing this, encourage them to look the terms up in a dictionary.]

Invention is the creation of a new object or process. One of the technological inventions that most significantly contributed to the Transportation Revolution was the steam engine.

Innovations change how people use preexisting ideas and products. For example, steam engines were adapted as a new power source for preexisting transport technologies: boats and railroads.

Infrastructure is the set of interconnected elements that support the use of inventions and innovations. Examples of transportation infrastructure are roads, bridges, tunnels, canals, rail lines, and ports.



The following visuals should be prepared for use with an LCD or overhead projector: 

  • What Am I? - This visual, for use during the lesson introduction, provides two images of an internal combustion engine.
  • LBJ Quote - This visual, for use in the lesson conclusion, provides a 1966 quotation from President Lyndon B. Johnson.


Students take a virtual time trip back to the 20th century, using these video clips provided by the Smithsonian Institution:


As the 19th century came to a close, most Americans lived in rural areas, but they had begun moving to the cities in record numbers. City residents worked and shopped close to where they lived. Most people walked. Wealthier individuals owned horse-drawn carriages. A number of cities had begun to build electric streetcar (trolley) systems as an alternative to the use of horsepower. Streetcars traveled faster and farther; they were also relatively inexpensive to ride. From a sanitation perspective, they were also a lot healthier than all the manure in the streets generated by horses!Bike

Bicycling was another increasingly popular way to get around. Invented in 1869, the bicycle was the first personal mechanical mode of transportation; both men and women were thrilled by the sense of freedom the new invention gave them. Take a step back in time with this video clip showing transportation on city streets in Washington, D.C. in 1900.

For people traveling from one city to another, railways and waterways were the preferred means of transport. Trains sped across the United States along thousands of miles of track, carrying people and freight.

Between 1900 and 1950, inventors and innovators tinkered with how they could use recently developed engines and new fuels to further break down geographic limits on travel. View this video clip, which shows some of their achievements.

Transportation Technology, 1900-1950


One of the new vehicles appearing on city streets in the U.S. was the automobile. In 1885, German Karl Benz developed a three-wheeled vehicle that used an internal combustion engine. Two other Germans, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, followed with their two-wheeled motorcycle and four-wheeled "horseless carriage." As the name implies, the latter was actually a carriage for a horse modified to be operated with an engine. Companies producing autos soon began to spring up in Europe and the United States.

CarMost of the cars produced were custom-made, delicate toys purchased by the wealthy. But Americans, particularly Ransom Olds and Henry Ford of Michigan, began to produce cars that were practical and affordable. Olds began manufacturing the curved dash Oldsmobile in 1901. In the first year of production, he sold 425 vehicles. By 1905, the number had grown to 5,000, making the Oldsmobile the first commercially successful American-made car. Motivated by this success, hundreds of new American companies started to enter the industry in the 1900s and 1910s.
Henry Ford organized the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Five years later, he introduced the Model T, also known as the "Tin Lizzie." By using mass-production strategies, Ford was able to manufacture a vehicle that many people could buy. With the Model T, Henry Ford almost single-handedly initiated a new era in motorized personal transportation. When production of the Model T ended in 1927, 15 million had been sold. Look at how car ownership in the U.S. changed in thirty years.

Cars Owned by Americans









In the year 2000, there were more than 220 million cars in the U.S.: more than one for every person over the age of 18. The average adult traveled more than 10,000 miles a year by car.


By 1912, most large cities had decent roads; some were even paved. Property owners were taxed to help pay for the improvements. Outside the cities, however, it was a very different story. Less than 10 percent of rural roads had an "improved" surface: gravel, brick, shells, oiled earth, etc. Most rural roads were little more than muddy trails that were impassable in bad weather. With railroads dominating interstate transportation, roadways were primarily of local interest and considered a luxury, something used mostly by wealthy people in their automobiles.
As interest in automobiles grew and became affordable to larger segments of the population, citizens began to call for road improvements. Carl Fisher, an auto racer and a manufacturer of the headlights used on most early cars, dreamed of a coast-to-coast paved highway. With friends from the auto industry, Fisher established the Lincoln Highway Association in 1913 to collect private contributions for an improved highway that would be available for use free of tolls. The Association marked out a route and funded sample stretches of pavement called "seedling miles" to encourage local governments to build the rest. The route was fully paved in the 1930s. Stretching from New York City to San Francisco, it is now the same general corridor as Interstate 80. One year after the formation of the Lincoln Highway Association was formed, Fisher started promoting a second highway to connect the Midwest to the South. The Dixie Highway is best thought of as a network of interconnected paved roads versus a single highway; the network from Montreal, Canada to Miami, Florida. Individuals, businesses, and local and state governments funded it. Fisher believed the two projects would demonstrate the value of highways to the nation's agriculture and business. At about the same time, the federal government was starting to recognize the importance of improved roads to the national economy. In 1916, Congress allocated millions of dollars as a incentive to states to improve roads in rural areas. States were asked to match these funds. The result was a highway building boom across the nation. Even the military got involved! The U.S. Army decided to organize a convoy of motor vehicles that would travel from Washington, DC to San Francisco during the summer of 1919. One purpose of the trip was to highlight the inadequacy of the nation's roads. Take a virtual trip back to 1919 to learn more about the road conditions of the time and the challenges presented to the military on the cross-country trip.

How fast do people drive today in your neighborhood? On the highway? General John J. Pershing was asked to chair a committee organizing a system of national defense highways. A map was published in 1922 designating roads of national importance that were eligible for federal support. During the 1920s and 1930s, the financial funding for roads increased. The money was primarily restricted to rural roads while urban improvements remained the responsibility of the states and cities. By 1935, more than a third of rural roads were surfaced, and many were paved with concrete and asphalt for motor traffic.Starting in the late 1930s, politicians debated and engineers studied the idea of linking America's cities by a system of high-speed national highways with access limited to a few interchange points. The system would support national defense and economic growth. With America on the verge of joining the war in Europe, however, the time for a massive highway program had not arrived. After World War II, many factories that had been tooled up to supply wartime needs switched to the production of automobiles. But roads built in the 1930s were inadequate for the faster, wider cars of the 1950s. There was also the number of cars then on the road  - nearly 50 million! Roads were widened, straightened, and divided. But it was not enough. President Eisenhower signed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act authorizing construction of a highway system with uniform design that would accommodate traffic for the next 20 years. The 41,000-mile system was designed for speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and to reach every city with a population of more than 100,000. Access to the system would be limited to interchanges identified in the original plan or later approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. The federal government was to provide 90 percent of the funding - mostly from gasoline taxes - and each state would provide the rest. The system was essentially completed by 1980. This interactive map shows what the system looked like before, during, and after construction.



The other vehicle that was getting a lot of attention was up in the sky! Orville Wright's first flight in 1903 lasted just 12 First Airplaneseconds. The new and improved plane that he and his brother Wilbur flew five years later stayed in the air for over an hour. In the next fifty years, aircraft continued to evolve. Construction materials changed from mostly wood and canvas to a more sturdy aluminum. Technological advancements made it possible to fly higher, faster, and farther. In 1914, Thomas Benoist launched what is considered the first air service in the United States. In 1916, the Post Office Department convinced Congress to let it use $50,000 for airmail experiments that would speed delivery of the mail. The following year the United States entered World War I, and the government became increasingly interested in expanding the nation's small aviation manufacturing industry. Before the conflict was over, Congress gave the Post Office $100,000 to establish airmail routes. Since planes at that time were not much faster than mail trains, aviators believed their best hope for competing with the railroads was to offer cross-country service. The Post Office began contracting with private airlines to transport mail over assigned routes in 1925. With this government subsidy, the nation's struggling air carriers gained the hope of a steady income. Regional airlines began offering regularly scheduled passenger flights creating a mishmash of local air routes. When the Post Office changed its contracts to favor a few strong carriers that could serve the entire nation, four airlines emerged. Eastern Airlines became a major north-south carrier, while TWA, American, and United provided coast-to-coast service. These airlines would continue to dominate the nation's air routes for the next half century. Several factors were converging to encourage improvements in air travel. As with previous developments in transport, geography was a key factor. Most planes in the late 1920s could fly at altitudes over 3,000 feet, but the Rocky Mountains had 8,000 to 10,000 foot passes. Planes could fly over the Appalachians, but poor flying conditions at the lower altitudes resulted in frequent crashes. Another factor was money. The Post Office initially paid airlines for service based on the weight of mail carried. Later, the policy changed and payment was determined by the space reserved for the mail. This reduction in payment motivated airlines to build larger planes that could carry passengers as well as mail to turn a profit

The DC-3 that was ultimately produced is considered the most significant commercial plane ever built. Capable of flying nonstop from New York to Chicago, the DC-3 showed that flying could be safe, comfortable, reliable, and affordable. It was the first airplane that could make a profit just by hauling passengers, without relying on government subsidies. As a result, it quickly drove competing planes from the airways, and it went on to dominate American aviation. By 1939, more than 90 percent of the nation's airline passengers were flying on DC-2s and DC-3s. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans were another problem tackled during the 1930s. Multiple engines were the only way to get the power required to lift the large loads of fuel needed for these long journeys. Add to this another obstacle: a plane with such a large load could not lift off the ground on existing landing strips. Only landing on water would provide the thousands of feet required.

Model 314 Clipper - Flying Boat
Several companies began producing four-engine seaplanes with the potential for making trips of more than 5,000 miles--more than double the range of land-based planes at the time. In 1936, Trippe introduced his Clipper
flying boats on a route that crossed the Pacific, reaching from San Francisco to the Philippines. His flying boats were among the largest aircraft during the first half of the 20th century. They traveled long distances by making refueling stops at island, river, lake, or coastal stations along the way. During World War II, Boeing introduced new jet airplanes to be used as high-speed bombers. When airline executives considered the faster jets for commercial use, they dismissed them as fuel guzzlers that would drive up operating costs and limit the distance traveled. Juan Trippe of Pan American World Airways thought differently. Promising a lot of orders, Trippe challenged Boeing 707Boeing and Douglas Aircraft to build a long-range jetliner. Boeing responded with the 707, which Pan Am put into service in 1958. The Douglas DC-8 went into commercial service the following year. Competing airlines began ordering the jets, fearing Pan Am would take away their passengers. The jet airliner offered more than an advance in speed. It revolutionized the cost and comfort of flying. Lower maintenance costs meant lower fares. Flights above most turbulence at even higher altitudes attracted passengers otherwise wary of flying. By 1960--two years after the introduction of the 707--air travel accounted for 47% of U.S. commercial passenger. Almost immediately, Pan Am asked Boeing for an even larger plane. The result was the Boeing 747, which was first flown commercially in 1970. Often referred to as the Jumbo Jet, the 747 can accommodate as many as 524 passengers but most are fitted for about 400 passengers, leaving substantial space for baggage, mail, and freight. For 35 years, the 747 held the record for largest plane. The model produced today can fly non-stop from New York to Hong Kong, a third of the way around the world.

The airplane was rapidly replacing trains and ocean lines. The arrival of the 1970s marked a nearly two-decade in travel by rail and ship. Only one ocean liner remained to provide transatlantic service for those who favored a slower style of travel.


When the U.S. Post Office Department decided to contract with commercial airlines versus operating its own planes in the late 1920s, its lights, emergency landing fields, and radio service were transferred to the Department of Commerce. Most of the terminal airports were given to the municipalities where they were located. These early airports were usually little more than airfields with viewing stands for people to watch air competitions. The stands were much like those built to watch horse races or other sports event of the time. When air travel started to grow after World War II, city and business leaders around the country rushed to develop big modern airports like the ones we know today in hopes of attracting new business. With the introduction of jet planes in the 1950s, the federal government quickly realized that it would have to become more involved in air transport. The jets needed radar and electronic aids for navigation, and these were in short supply. Then a DC-7 and a Super Constellation collided over the Grand Canyon in 1956, killing 128 people. The point was driven home that air routes were unsafe even for fast propeller-driven aircraft. Congress responded with funding for the needed equipment. Beginning in the 1960s, airports expanded to serve the millions of new passengers and the flourishing air cargo business. By 1980, air travel accounted for 84 percent of U.S. commercial passenger travel. In the year 2000, 2 million passengers plus millions of packages and high priority cargo were taking off from America's airports every day.

Use what you have just read and this chart of specifications on some of the most significant planes of the 20th century to answer the questions that follow.

Significant Planes of the Twentieth Century



Top Speed

Altitude Ceiling


Maximum Passengers

Ford Trimotor






Boeing 247






Douglas DC-3






Boeing Model 314 (Clipper Flying Boat)






Lockheed L-649













Boeing 707 (Jet)






Boeing 747 (JumboJet)












Airbus 380

(Super Jumbo Jet)








Take a virtual time trip back to the 20th century and watch as these transportation changes occurred. See how many more inventions, innovations, and improvements in infrastructure you can identify.

Transportation Infrastructure, 1900-1950

Video and Read-Along Text

Transportation Infrastructure, 1950-2000

Video and Read-Along-Text

Transportation Technology, 1950-2000

Video and Read-Along Text


Lower Opportunity Costs

When people travel, they consider the amount of time it will take to get from point A to point B. Time is considered a cost; travelers could be using time spent traveling doing something else. This chart offers a glimpse at how aviation reduced the opportunity cost of transatlantic travel for passengers during the 1900s.

Time to Cross the Atlantic

(New York – London)





6 days




81 hours (Dirigible)



14 hours (Sea Plane)


3.5 days

11 hours (Propeller Plane)



9 hours (Jet)



8 hours (Jet)
3.5 hours (Supersonic)

A similar impact occurred with travel across the nation. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, it was possible to travel from New York to California in five or six days. Today, the trip can be made by plane in 6 hours.

From City to Suburb

The invention of the automobile at the turn of the century gave people a new freedom to travel when and where they wanted. As cars became more affordable to the general public, road building took off. Local, state, and federal dollars built millions of miles of roads, paving the nation's future. A phenomenal change occurred as to how (and where) people would live, work, and play.

The change is most noticeable after World War II as suburban housing developments spread across the landscape. People could live in the suburbs and commute to work in the city. Metropolitan areas were roughly 50% suburban and 50% urban in 1950. At the end of the century, the ratio was closer to two-thirds suburban and rising.

Over time, businesses started to follow people to the suburbs. Stores moved from downtown to the edges of cities and suburban strips. Shopping centers and malls were created with plenty of room for shoppers to park their vehicles. Many new businesses were also sprang up to catered to car owners: gas stations, tire stores, and auto repair shops, and so on. 

Many people began taking to the road for pleasure. Automobiles and highways gave people the ability to travel on their own across the nation. Motels, restaurants, and gas stations kept long-distance motorists fed, rested, and ready to go. New tourist attractions popped up, and tourism became a much more important industry.

A Global Marketplace

During the 20th century, the world also became a much smaller place. The development of aviation as well as modern shipping made it possible for people and goods to move between countries quickly and cheaply. Producers could reach markets almost anyplace in the world. Business partnerships and alliances developed around the globe. Consumers were given access to a broader range of goods at lower prices.

Obviously, different countries have different terrains, climates, resources, etc. As a result, some nations are able to produce some goods that other countries cannot produce or can produce only at extremely high costs. For example, Globebananas do not grow easily in the U.S., but they flourish in Central American countries with tropical climates such as Honduras and Costa Rica. We can grow bananas in the U.S. if we use hothouses, but it is cheaper for us to buy the bananas from the other nations than to produce them ourselves.

specialization exporting surplus products they are able to produce and importing what they cannot or choose not to produce. Major U.S. imports include petroleum, automobiles and auto parts, office machines, iron and steel, clothing, footwear, fish, coffee, and diamonds. Major U.S. exports include automobiles, computers, aircraft, scientific instruments, corn, wheat, soybeans, coal, chemicals, and plastics. About half of our exports go to Canada, Japan, and countries in the European Community. Exports account for about 10 percent of U.S.Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Many U.S. jobs now depend on world trade.

Expanding global trade has had benefits and costs. Can you distinguish between the two? Have your students click here to check for understanding.


Project a copy of this quotation where students can see it. Tell the students that during the signing ceremony for the 1966 legislation creating the U.S. Department of Transportation, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

'In large measures, America's history is a history of her transportation.'

Ask the students to share what they think President Johnson meant by this statement. [Answers will probably focus on the fact that it is very difficult to separate the general history of the U.S. from the history of its transportation. Advancements in transportation played a key role in the economic development and geographic expansion of the nation. Inventions and improvements in infrastructure are intertwined with prices, employment, economic growth, and our nation’s level of living. Today, transportation has been key to our nation’s participation in the global economy.]


Think about it: Use the following question as an in-class discussion topic, or have students write a short response: During the signing ceremony for the legislation creating the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "In large measure, America's history is a history of her transportation." What do you think President Johnson meant by this statement?

Collect the student's papers with their lists of transportation inventions, innovations, and infrastructure from the beginning of the lesson. Or, if you prefer, simply ask them to identify their responses and write them on the board. Use this opportunity to clarify any misconceptions regarding the terms. Be prepared for some lively discussion as to where some items should be listed. Not all items fit neatly into one category. Sometimes, one item will lead to the identification of others. For example, the invention of the jet engine led to its innovative use in airplanes--hence, the jet airline.

The list provided below provides some examples for each of the three terms. It is by no means an exhaustive list.

Electric Motors
Internal Combustion Engine
Jet Engine
Traffic Lights
Auto Turn Signals
Auto Headlights
Auto Heaters

Electric Trolley
Electric Boats
Self-Starting Engines
Pressurized Airplane Cabins
Jet Plane
Sea Plane
Electric Signal Lights for Night Flying
Standard Steel Shipping Containers
Assembly Line Manufacturing
Global Positioning Systems

Paved Roads
Interstate Highway System
Air Mail Service
Airport Hangers and Terminals
Radar for Air Navigation
Levees, Harbors, and Ports to Support Shipping
Installation of Traffic Lights

Evaluation of student learning is based on student responses to questions included in this lesson and student preparation of posters for a class timeline in Lesson 3.


Have the students:

1. Research how a car engine works, using these web links from How Stuff Works:

The Internal Combustion Engine  
How Car Engines Work  
How Horsepower Works

2. Debate whether the benefits of the interstate highway system outweighed the costs. To get started, students are directed to divide a sheet of paper in half lengthwise. On one side, they list "winners" who benefited and the reasons why. On the other side, they list the "losers" who were negatively impacted. These web links will help the students identify the costs and benefits.

Transportation Infrastructure, 1950-2000
Suburban Strip  
City and Suburb

[Note to the teacher: To help evaluate their efforts, here is a list of winners and losers that are suggested in the web links provided.]

3. Read a book about one of the people or companies that had a significant role in 20th Century transportation. Henry Ford, Horatio Jackson, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Charles Lindbergh, and the Boeing Company are a just a few of the hundreds of possible choices.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3