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 transportation and its impact on our nation (and vice versa) since the United States declared its independence in 1776. Lesson 1 focuses on improvements in transportation during the 19th century, particularly the development of a national rail system, to show how invention, innovation and infrastructure encouraged western expansion and economic growth. Lesson 2 moves on to the 20th century focusing on the development of auto transport and aviation. The impact on communities and world trade, for both good and bad,is examined. Lesson 3 calls upon the students to create a class timeline of transportation milestones; the timeline will help the students more clearly understand the factors, especially the economic incentives, that have played a key role in what has been called the "Transportation Revolution."  While these three lessons will ideally be used together as a set, teachers may choose to use one or two of them, selectively, to focus, for example, on the 19th or the 20th century. If you would like your students to study the economics of transportation in more depth, consider following up with the EconEdLink lesson,An Economic Mystery: What Happened to Railroads?


Competition, Incentive, Innovation, Inventors, Investment, Profit, Profit Motive, Property Rights, Role of Government, Technological Changes


  • Explain how economic incentives encouraged technological change and the capital investments that led to the Transportation Revolution.
  • Explore advancements in transportation, identifying ways in which they 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.


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Note to Teachers: Before you begin this lesson, you will need to do some preliminary work on the class timeline as described in the resource section.

On the board, write the statement, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Ask the students what they think this statement means. [A visual image can convey as much meaning as a thousand words]

Show the students the poster of "Early Transportation Milestones" and tell them that it is a chart of some of the earliest known advancements that have contributed to transport Infrastructureas we know it today. All of these events occurred long before the events explored in lessons 1 and 2.


How might we represent this chart visually so it is easier to understand?
[A timeline with images reflecting the milestones.]

What would be the advantage of a timeline?
[A timeline provides a graphic perspective on the amount of time that occurred between milestones. The images would provide a visual representation that is more easily comprehended than text.]

In this lesson you are going to create posters for a class timeline that will graphically present transportation milestones. This timeline and your posters will help us see how the inventions, innovations and investments in infrastructure that comprise what is called the "Transportation Revolution" unfolded. You are also going to explore the role of incentives. Incentives helped spur crucial developments in transportation.

Direct the students' attention to the timeline framework and the posters you have put up in your classroom or school corridor. Show them the sample poster for the steam engine (1781), which will serve as a model for their posters. To encourage consistency, tell them that a template is provided as a Microsoft Word document in the lesson for their use.

Give the students additional directions as necessary. Distribute the slips of paper with the transportation milestones you have selected for them.



You will need to decide in advance how you want to organize your students' contributions to the timeline. You can have students work individually or in teams of 2-3 students. This list identifies transportation milestones that could be used as themes for the posters. The milestones with an asterisk (*) are particularly well-suited to the objectives of the lesson and provide a fairly well-rounded perspective of the Transportation Revolution. Edit the list so that it works within your time constraints and your approach to the task. Note: If your students are focusing on the 19th century (covered in the first lesson), you will want to limit your list accordingly. The same holds true if you are limiting study to the 20th century (featured in the second lesson).

Once you have decided which events to use, cut the appropriate slips from the left column of the list for distribution to individual students or student teams. The right column is for your eyes only. It provides background information to help you highlight key points and address issues that your students may miss, and assess student effort.


Cut a piece of blank white paper that is at least 2 1/2-feet wide and 25 feet long. Using a wide black marker, draw a horizontal line across the middle of the paper. At one-foot intervals on the line, draw short vertical lines, each representing a ten-year time span. Above these shorter lines, add date labels. Start with 1780 and end with 2010. Post the timeline in your classroom or a school corridor.

Note to teachers: If you are limiting your timeline to the 19th or 20th century, the length of paper can be reduced accordingly.

Download, print out, and post the already prepared posters below:

These will allow you to illustrate:

  • Maps of the United States and its territories between 1775 and 1920
  • Select historical events for example, the Declaration of Independence, the World Wars, and the 1973 OPEC oil embargo
  • Notable federal legislation relevant to transportation
  • Basic research advances and resource discoveries that contributed to transportation milestones; for example, the battery, tunneling equipment, reinforced concrete, dynamite, and the discovery of oil.
  • Completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914.

PlaneThese events will help students understand the interrelationship between advancements in transportation, government actions and other key historical events.

Here is an example of how the timeline might be organized using the milestones denoted by an asterisk (*) on the list. Separate timelines are provided for the 19th and 20th centuries, but they can easily be combined for a longer perspective.

If school policy allows, an alternative method for creating the timeline is to attach two rows of sticky Velcro hook and loop tape that are 25 feet long. Mount posters on tag board or manila folders and use small pieces of Velcro to attach items to the strips on the wall. If you are doing this activity with several classes and want each class to have its own timeline, you can easily remove the posters from one class in preparation for the next class. On the other hand, there are enough milestones so that you can distribute different milestones to different classes yielding a much more comprehensive timeline.


The students are provided a sample poster and template as part of the instructions in their version of the lesson. They can use the template as a starting point then save their work to the computer they are working on or to a computer disk. They will require access to a printer. A color printer is nice but not necessary.

Another nice touch is offering tag board or manila folders that can be cut to size and used as a mounting surface for the posters. Consider color-coding the background mats to further enhance the timeline. Black might be used for technological advances of a general nature, for example, reinforced concrete, the internal combustion engine and plastic; brown might highlight shipping; green might signal the railroad industry; blue might be the background to aviation firsts; red might indicate vehicles used on the road as well as other forms of personal transport.

You will need tape or small pieces of Velcro to attach each poster to the timeline.


Students are provided an index of web links. These web sites will provide most of the information they need to create their posters.


  • Explain that some of the advancements and improvements the students are researching have their roots in ancient history. They should examine this list of inventions from ancient history to see if there are any connections with their research topics.







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In their version of the lesson, the students are instructed to research the event on the slips of paper you have given them and to prepare a poster that they can use to tell others what they have discovered. Components to be included on the poster are:

When. Place the year in which the event occurred at the top of your poster. Other important details related to the time of occurrence can be included in the text at the bottom of the page.

What. Below the year, create a heading of 1-5 words that summarizes the event.

Who. Identify the individual or people who were the key parties involved in the event. This might include an individual inventor, an aviator, a group of investors, a business, a government unit or a mix of these.

Where. Note the nation (and state, if known) where the event occurred. Include other details on locale in the text at the bottom of the poster.

Why. In a few words, tell why the event was important.

Additional information.
At the bottom of the poster, provide a few comments that offer more details concerning the event. This type of information would be appropriate:

  • Identify the event as invention, innovation, or improvement in infrastructure.
  • Tell how the invention, innovation or infrastructure changed the movement of people and goods. For example, did it make transport faster, cheaper, safer or more comfortable?
  • Explain the economic incentives associated with the event.
  • Explain how the event connects with other notable advancements in technology and transportation.

Have the students follow the directions provided in their version of the lesson. Some students will finish more quickly than others. They might do the following:

  1. Help other students who need assistance with the technical elements of creating the posters.
  2. Help you prepare the timeline and attach posters as they are completed.
  3. Create additional posters illustrating communication events as described in Extension Activity 1.

When the students have completed their posters, gather them together for a class discussion. Direct their attention to the timeline. Call out the first transportation milestone and ask the student(s) with the corresponding event to briefly summarize its significance. Repeat this process with other events on the timeline.

As you proceed, ask questions that help students see how the events build on each other. For example, the steam locomotive and steamboat were both dependent on the invention of the steam engine. The construction of the transcontinental railroad was dependent on innovations in bridge and tunnel building. And the reinforced concrete bridge was dependent on the development of concrete and reinforced concrete.


After all the students presented their posters, discuss the project overall:

1. Some of you researched inventions and innovations that have roots much earlier in history. What are some examples? [There are many possible answers, for example, the battery, which can be traced back to 200 B.C.]

2. What milestones surprised you? Why? [Answers will vary.]

3. What motivated the many improvements in transportation on the timeline?

[As the students respond, summarize their answers on the board. Potential responses include curiosity, adventure, fun creating something new or different, prize money, convenience, comfort, expansion/protection of markets, access to new resources, national defense, reducing production costs, return on financial instruments (such as stocks and bonds), profit on the sale of goods or services, payments on the right to use a patented idea.]

  1. Which of these incentives are economic?

    [As the students identify items from the list, circle the responses that are correct. Point out that economic incentives are often crucial to technological advancements and improvements in infrastructure.]

  2. Sometimes government uses economic incentives and other policies to encourage the development of technology. How did local, state and federal governments encourage the Transportation Revolution?

    [Many answers are possible. One of the most obvious was the provision of land and government-backed loans to encourage the building of the transcontinental railroad. Postal contracts, highway construction/public transport projects, and funding and tax deductions for research are all examples of how government directly and indirectly encouraged progress. Throughout the history of the United States, patent and property laws have also been important as they protect the rights of inventors and investors. A recent economic incentive has been the provision of tax credits as an economic incentive to encourage people to purchase hybrid motor vehicles. On the other hand, gas taxes can be used to discourage the use of petroleum-based fuels (an example of a negative incentive) and promote increased use of public transport.]

4. From an economic perspective, what do you consider the most important transportation milestones on the timeline? Why?

[Answers will vary. A common response for the 19th century is the building of the transcontinental rails which promoted westward expansion, specialization, and economic growth. During the 20th century, the automobile and the interstate highway system have had both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, it has created many new jobs, in the manufacturing and servicing of motor vehicles, the building and maintaining of roads, the tourism industry, etc. Less welcome consequences include economic pressures on declining cities and the nation’s increased dependence on foreign oil.]

5. A benefit of a timeline is that it helps us see how quickly or slowly change occurs. Once a new means of harnessing power was found, how long did it take for people to apply it to a mode of transportation?

[For the steam engine and internal combustion engine, it only took about 20 years. Electric power took much longer and has not reached its full potential. At present, it is not clear whether solar power will play an important role in everyday transport. Nuclear power appears to be limited to very expensive modes of transport such as space vehicles and ships.]

6. What milestones on the timeline do you think are setting the stage for future transport?

[Answers will vary. Electric and solar cars may be viewed as more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly modes of personal transport. The tiltrotor aircraft, which is presently used only by the military might lead to an entirely new form of personal transport that can lift and fly from place to place. Japan's bullet train has demonstrated the potential for high-speed rail service. The space shuttle offers the possibility for everyday travel beyond the earth.]


Assessment is based on the Transportation Milestone posters created by students. Adjust and weight this rubric to fit your specific evaluation needs.


  1. The use of fuels other than petroleum as a power source for motor vehicles has been an issue of keen interest as our nation moved from the 20th to 21st century. The students may research the promise and challenge of these alternative fuels for motor vehicles and then predict which alternative fuels will power the automobiles of the future. Two Wikipedia articles below can help the students to identify current concerns and the alternative fuels that may someday prove to be valuable:
  2. Paralleling the developments in transportation have been improvements in Wikipedia: Alternative Fuel Cars communication. One might think of communication advancements as "vehicles" through which one particular kind of product, information, is transported. The speedy exchange information is vital to market competition and economic growth. Have the students add communication milestones to their transportation timeline. They may include items related to the U.S. Postal Service, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, the Internet, etc. These web links can help the students get started:

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