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On The Go

Over two hundred years ago, a traveler didn't have too many options. Short of walking, swimming, or riding a horse, carriages and boats provided the only available means of transportation. Today, all of that has changed, thanks to the determined pioneers who helped bring the locomotive, the automobile, and the airplane into the world.

On December 17, 1903, two of those pioneers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the first successful test flights of a heavier-than-air plane. The Wright Brothers and other transportation pioneers changed not only travel, but also industry and culture.

Locomotives and the Railroad

The railroad owes part of its existence to English mining companies, which built rails for their heavy horse-drawn coal and ore wagons in the 16th century in order to save wear and tear on ordinary roads. In the early 19th century, scientists began to investigate ways of moving along rails without the use of horses.

In 1804, British inventor Richard Trevithick built the first steam-engine locomotive. Trevithick's creation could haul 10 tons of iron, 70 people, and five wagons at five miles per hour. Unfortunately, though,

the locomotive was so heavy that it broke the mining rails before it could get very far.

For the next few decades, inventors continued to tinker with locomotives. In 1829, British engineer George Stephenson developed The Rocket, which could pull a coach at up to 24 miles per hour. The success of The Rocket made trains a viable mode of transportation for both people and freight. In the U.S. and England, railroad companies formed and began to build tracks that would compete with roads for travelers. By 1848, there were railroad tracks in nearly all of the states along the Atlantic Ocean. One year later, prospectors discovered gold in California, drawing more Americans west. To accommodate these voyagers, the railroads began to stretch their tracks westward.

In the 1860s, the government authorized the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. In 1869, the rails of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad were joined in Utah, and suddenly, the West was no longer out of reach for those who lacked the will to venture there in a wagon. Americans could travel all the way from New York to California on a train.

The railroad changed trade, commerce, and travel in the United States. Trains from the East brought goods and adventurous travelers to the West, while trains from the West brought lumber and livestock to the East. As a result, the railroad helped populate the West and enabled the establishment of new industries there. It also helped bring natural resources to the East.


There were so many precursors to today's automobile that it's impossible to say who actually invented these motorized vehicles. German engineer Karl Benz devised what was probably the first true automobile in 1885. Benz's contraption ran on gasoline and used technology that was similar to the vehicles that followed. Benz inspired others to work on their own versions of the automobile.

For many years, cars were extremely rare. They were so costly and unreliable that only the wealthy could afford to own them. That changed in the 20th century, when American Henry Ford began to market cars to the masses.

Ford began building his own automobiles in 1893. Ten years later, he founded the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, Michigan, and in 1908, the company initiated production of the Model T car. The Model T revolutionized automobile ownership in America. How? Unlike previous cars, which had been built slowly by hand, the Model T was built on an assembly line. Each worker was responsible for adding one part to the car before passing it to the next worker. Workers required little expertise and could therefore be paid less. In addition, the assembly line produced automobiles quickly and efficiently.

Ford's high production rate and low costs enabled him to sell the Model T at rock-bottom prices. In 1908, a Model T cost $950. By 1927, Ford had become so efficient that the car's price dropped to $280. The automobile was no longer a luxury item.

The popularization of the automobile changed American culture in several ways. Producing cars required the growth of the oil, chemical, rubber, and steel industries, and this created new jobs. Service stations, motels, and billboards appeared on roads, which grew as the nation invested in a national highway system. Americans used these highways to travel farther than ever before. Life changed closer to home, as well. Cars enabled people to move out of cities and into suburbs. Americans may have gotten away more often, but they also spent less time talking to neighbors, shopping in local stores, and exercising.


As early as the 16th century, Italian Leonardo da Vinci visualized human flight after watching birds soar through the air. Da Vinci invented the parachute and a type of helicopter. By the late 18th century, people were using hot air balloons. All of these devices had certain limitations, however. They relied on wind to propel them, and it was impossible to control their direction.

In the late 19th century, scientists began working on aircraft that would have engines to propel them. Unlike previous aircraft, these could be heavier than air because they would not rely on the wind. For several years, inventors built and tested aircraft. Several of them got into the air on their own, proving to astonished witnesses that heavier-than-air flight was possible. Unfortunately for these inventors, however, none of the aircraft was able to stay in the air.

The Wright Brothers were among these bold early aviators. On December 17, 1903, after several aviation experiments, the brothers made the world's first successful flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Like the railroad and the automobile, the airplane has changed life around the world. Travelers can go from continent to continent in a matter of hours instead of days. Planes have played a role in industry and commerce by quickly carrying shipments overseas. In addition, planes have become a vital part of war, peacekeeping, and diplomacy, moving troops and ambassadors to their destinations on short notice.

Transportation is not just about getting from place to place. It affects the day-to-day activities of families, businesses, and even governments. Could the developers of the train, the automobile, and the airplane have known that they were changing the world?


diplomacy (noun)    the conduct by government officials of negotiations and other relations between nations

precursor (noun)    forerunner; person or thing that comes before another of the same kind

viable (adjective)    reasonable

visualize (verb)    to get a mental picture of something

affect (verb) to cause a change in something

assembly line (noun) a line of machines and workers in which a product moves along while it is being built or produced

transcontinental (adjective) crossing a continent

Multiple Choice: Circle the letter of the choice the best completes the statement. (2 points each)

1. Look at the third paragraph in the section on automobiles. What is this paragraph mainly about?

  1. Henry Ford became successful because he spent more time building each car.

  2. By using the assembly line, Henry Ford managed to save both time and money.

  3. By using the assembly line, Henry Ford could hire workers with more experience.

  4. Henry Ford became successful because he produced expensive cars quickly.

2. The reader can tell from the article that __________.

  1. The Model T is responsible for the western United States becoming more accessible.

  2. The train helped many people to travel west in search of gold.

  3. The Model T is responsible for many people becoming rich from gold in California.

  4. The train led to industry growth in the eastern but not the western U.S.

3. According to the article, which of the following is true?

  1. When autos were first invented, they were owned by almost every family.

  2. The first autos were better at transporting freight than trains were.

  3. When autos were first invented, they were only owned by the very rich.

  4. The first autos were used to transport more people than trains were.

4. Which question is not answered by the article?

  1. What changes in American culture did the automobile bring about?

  2. How did Henry Ford use the assembly line to improve his company?

  3. When did people start paying for flights on commercial airlines?

  4. How did the creation of the railroads affect the American West?

5. In which paragraph would the author most likely place information on the costs of auto ownership before Henry Ford began making Model Ts?

  1. Paragraph 8

  2. Paragraph 6

  3. Paragraph 7

  4. Paragraph 9

6. Which is the closest antonym for the word viable?

  1. Knowledgeable

  2. Workable

  3. Favorable

  4. Unsuitable

7. If a city government authorized the construction of a bridge, this means that the construction was _______.

  1. Poorly planned

  2. Officially approved

  3. Abruptly halted

  4. Strictly forbidden

8. The author must have written this article mainly to __________.

  1. Criticize the types of transportation available in the United States

  2. Show how changes in automobile production have changed American culture

  3. Discuss how some major inventions in transportation changed life in America

  4. Explain how inventing modes of transportation is not as hard as it seems

Opinion Question: Now that you have read the article, indicate what form of transportation you think had the greatest influence on the U.S.? (5 points)

Thought Question: Choose one of the three forms of transportation discussed in the article. Explain how this method of transportation affects your life. Next, explain how the world would be different if it had not been invented. Use ideas from the article, as well as your own ideas, in your response. (5 points)

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