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A Brief History of Travel

Human bodies are designed to move, ever since our ancient hunter and gather ancestors mastered farming we have found one reason or another to get us back on the road. Below is a very brief history of travel from fraught but essential for trade to modern yearly overseas vacations.

A brief history of travel

The spoked wheel was invented around 5400 BCE though without an extensive roading system, ocean and river travel was still the most popular form of transport. Exploration in the early years was generally for trade purposes and envoy such as Zang Qian 130BCE mapped what would become the Silk Road connecting east and west via overland trading routes.

The rise of the Roman Empire establishes more roads for movement of troops and trade and then the development of the Christian and then Muslim and Hindu religions made spiritual and religious pilgrimages a common concept. The huge growth of the Muslim empire around 706 blocked the path of some established pilgrimage routs, the Christians rose up against this culminating in the crusades in 1095 moving both troops and pilgrims throughout Europe and the Middle East.

1279 attention turned again to the East Genghis Khan’s empire covered 25% of the globe and traded far beyond.

This was the beginning of the age of discovery, sea voyages were again popular as Europe strove to connect points all over the globe. This period while good for Europeans in regards to trade and resources was generally horrible for native peoples who were often decimated by European plagues and poorly treated by colonists.

Sea voyage, travel history

In 1498 Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer found sea passage to India enabling them to cut out the middle men in the overland trade route.

In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered America (the Vikings had been there first in the 10th century)

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in 1593, attempted to circumnavigate the planet, he did not survive the voyage but 18 of his 270 crew did, the voyage took them 3 years.

In 1642-44 Dutch explorer called Abel Tasman became the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia.

In the 16th century journeymen belonging to guilds where often prescribed 3-4 years travel as part of their education. As the Renaissance and its nostalgia for classical times bloomed in the 17th and 18th century young aristocrats set out on the “grand tour” (the original gap year), mostly 1-3 years of travel in Europe to cap off their education and polish their manners. Less than 1% of the population could afford to travel in this way and for the rest travel remained an uncomfortable and costly experience mostly consisting of travel between towns in a stage coach.

The grand tour, travel history

The industrial revolution meant trains had made travel accessible to a new middle class. In 1841 Thomas Cook hired a railway carriage to take friends to a temperance meeting and became first modern tour agent starting a company that sent tours all over the globe.

1903 the Write brothers invented powered air travel. This combined with paid holidays that became a common law after the First World War and the surplus of pilots and aircraft after the Second World War brought commercial air travel in the 20th century as large bombers were converted into passenger transports, by 1958 Boeing had converted to a passenger air craft company.

In the 50s and 60s flights where still expensive but personal automobiles and bus travel spiked as a new generation set out to see the world.

1953 Explorer Sir Edmund Hillary scaled Mt Everest for no other reason than the challenge. He is a prime example of an explorer that has persisted throughout time driven only by the need to challenge and discover.

Backpacking as we know it today was born from the “hippie trail” a trek overland from Europe to India and overland tours such as Top Deck were born. Though guidebooks had been around from the 18th century with Karl Baedeker’s publishing house. Tony and Maureen Wheeler published “Asia on the Cheap” the first modern back packing guide in 1970 which went on to become the Lonely Planet company.

60s travel Hippie Trail

Today overseas holidays are part of mainstream culture, the internet has made digital travel easy to access and constant new technological developments such as Airbnb and Couchsurfing continue to make travel available to a wider audience. Safety, comfort and cost are guaranteed and the unexplored territory is reduced to the deepest oceans and outer space and yet still we yearn for travel.

Humans have travelled for a lot of reasons; trade, religion, a quest for knowledge, the thrill of exploration and a rite of passage. The circumnavigation of the globe that took Ferdinand Magellan 3 years can now be done by plane in less than three days but our need to wander seems here to stay. Perhaps we still hear the call of our hunter and gatherer ancestors, either way the drive to explore, to see more of the world seems to be a human trait that is here to stay.


If you enjoyed this post you may enjoy this one on 4 steps to plan your dream holiday or for monthly tips to save money on your travels, click here.

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