Transportation systems have evolved since ancient time. This continual transformation of the ways in which humans travel and transport goods is often closely tied to technological advances in the field of transportation. In many ways, the culture of a civilization is heavily influenced by the transportation technologies available to it. However, the relationship goes the other way as well. The transportation technologies present in a society are also often determined by the culture of that society.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, an iconic ship known as the Caravel largely dominated the sea-faring industries of Southwestern Europe. Although the exact origin of this ship is still debated, it had been used as an offshore fishing vessel by the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula since at least the 1200’s. The ship featured a strong Moorish influence, and its design, at least in part, may have been passed from the Islamic body of knowledge to the Western Christian societies of Spain and Portugal. This is quite possible because, as one author points out (see links below), Medieval Islamic society contributed many advances to the fields of geography, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. These important theoretical discoveries would later contribute to the success of European seafaring by forming the foundation of cutting-edge navigational techniques and other technologies.
The Caravel was a relatively small ship, especially by modern standards. The bottom of the ship protruded below the surface of the water by only a small distance, making it an extremely maneuverable watercraft. For much of its life, the Caravel featured triangular “lateen” sails that, combined with its eminent maneuverability, allowed it to sail into the wind using a zigzagging technique known as “beating to windward.” The Spanish and Portuguese soon recognized the potential of this ship, and transformed it from a simple offshore fishing vessel to the backbone of the European Age of Exploration. With the addition of square sails (to provide increased power when sailing with the wind) and other minor changes, the Caravel soon became the ship of choice for many explorers. It has been suggested that two of Columbus’s ships, the Niña and the Pinta, were Caravels optimized for transatlantic exploration.
Clearly, the Caravel revolutionized European transportation. This technology made it possible for European explorers, fishermen, and merchants to “expand their horizons,” by providing the ability to travel further, faster. One could argue that it played a major role in the rapid colonization of the New World.
However, the inverse is also true. To a large extent, the success of the Caravel was due to navigational techniques brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, combined with the European desire for political, economic, religious, and scientific expansion.
This dichotomy holds true for many transportation-related technologies. Railroads are built to service existing towns, but the route itself often determines the development of future towns. Military conflict has served as a catalyst for the development of many advances in aviation technology that have later spilled over into the public sector. It is clear that a society’s culture and its transportation technologies are very much linked. Engineers must keep this in mind when developing new technologies for transportation systems. When designing part of a transportation system, it is important both to take inspiration from society and to recognize the changes that that technology will have upon society.