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Can you imagine a world without transport? Every day, people use all sorts of transport to move from place to place. Transport includes machines like buses, bicycles, cars, planes and trains. Transport also supplies shops with the products that people need and like to buy. The transport that people use today, however, looks very different from the transport that people used in 1900. This chapter will look at  transport in the early 1900s.


People living over 100 years ago in 1900 were seeing the rapid development of modern transport. Around 1900, many inventions were being developed that were making transport faster, more efficient and more comfortable than the existing forms of transport like the horse and cart.

Rail transport

The steam-powered engine was the most common form of power in the industrialised world in 1900. It was being widely used for both land and sea transport. Steam- powered locomotives were able to move people and large quantities of freight from place to place. See image 1. These locomotives could only travel where tracks had been laid. At each rail terminal or station, goods and people had to be offloaded and transported to a final destination, usually by horse-drawn carts (coaches).

In 1900, cities around the world were growing rapidly. New forms of public transport were needed. The world's first public electric railway was opened in Germany in 1881. Electric trains were well suited to urban areas as they were able to start and stop quickly. They were also quieter than steam trains and did not produce soot.

In Australia, over 4000 kilometres of railway tracks had been laid by 1890. Each capital city on the east coast was connected by railway lines and work had begun on developing suburban rail networks.

Animal power

Animal power (mainly horses and bullocks) was still being used in 1900 to move people and supplies. Even today, people use all kinds of animals such as camels, dogs and elephants to transport heavy equipment and to move people.

In Australia, most of the movement of goods and passengers away from the rail network and train stations, particularly in the country, was still dependent on the horse or the bullock. Coach firms such as Cobb & Co enjoyed a boom period as more railway lines were laid and more coaches were needed to transport people and goods to and from the train stations. See image 2

Sea transport

At sea, sailing ships were slowly disappearing as more and more steam ships were being made. These large ships were able to cross vast bodies of water without being dependent on the wind.

Before air travel, the only way to cross the ocean was by ship. In 1900, the time taken to travel from England to Australia had been drastically reduced from about 140 days to 30 days with the invention of the steam ship. See image 3


The first internal combustion engine-powered vehicle was designed by the German engineer, Karl Benz in 1885. See image 4. These engines used petrol instead of steam and were more compact and powerful than the steam engines. The internal combustion engine is still used today.

In 1896, the Shearer brothers were responsible for building and using the first car in Australia. Herbert Thomson and Edward Holmes then made history when they drove their steam car from Bathurst to Melbourne, arriving on 4 May 1900. They covered about 800 kilometres in just ten days, travelling on very poor roads and suffering many mishaps.

By 1910, the motor car and the motor truck were a common sight in almost every city in the Western world. The horse and buggy were slowly being replaced. In Australia, road building had not kept pace with the development of the motor car. Most roads between major cities were just dirt roads that made travel very difficult and uncomfortable.


As cities grew, the need for public transport increased. During the 1800s, trams were developed as a means of transporting people. They were a faster and cheaper option than using a horse-drawn bus. The first trams to use electric power from overhead cables appeared in America and Germany in the 1880s. In Sydney, the first electric tram began operation in December 1899, going down George Street to Circular Quay.


In the 1860s, the first pedal bicycle was invented. One of the first bicycles was the penny farthing which had one big wheel and one small wheel. See image 5. In the 1890s, bicycles with proper tyres and brakes were developed. These were more comfortable and safer to ride and became very popular.

Air transport

At Stanwell Park south of Sydney on 12 November 1894, a man named Lawrence Hargrave flew in a large box-kite that he had designed himself. He was the first man in Australia to make a heavier-than-air ascent when he became airborne to a height of almost five metres.

At Kittyhawk in the United States, the Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur) flew a powered aircraft a distance of 50 metres on 17 December 1903. They were the first humans to achieve heavier-than-air powered flight. See image 6. The development of the aeroplane continued from there at a steady rate.

In Australia, on 9 December 1909, Colin Defries took to the skies at Melbourne's Victoria Park raceway. The plane failed to stay in the air for long enough, or travel far enough, to be officially recognised, but it was the first flight undertaken in Australia by a powered aeroplane.

The next chapter will look at the types of transport we use today.

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1. In which country was the first public electric railway opened?