Going faster: How we did it

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

When we gaze into the night sky, we always observe superfast motion – even though nothing seems to be moving at all. But starting just ten human generations ago, we ourselves began traveling fast.

Our body speed didn’t change much during the first 2,000 centuries of human history. We walked or ran. An hour of effort let us sweatily advance ourselves from three to ten miles. After we tamed horses, we galloped for short distances.

In modern times the average American walks 65,000 miles in a lifetime: more than twice around the world. That’s not so different from our ancestors. This is: We also each travel a million miles. Such a degree of movement was unheard-of until recently (and not just because the word“million”didn’t exist until the 14th century, before which the largest number was a “myriad”: 100,000). Danger-per-mile was so much higher even during the Civil War that no one would have lived to accumulate that many frequent-traveler points. True, an extraordinary 19th-century railway conductor or seaman might have accrued that much – but he’d likely have lots of scars to prove it.

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The pivotal point in human travel arrived two centuries ago. Huge changes unfolded between 1790 and 1830. At the start of that period, most travel was by carriage along potholed dirt roads at four to six miles per hour. By all accounts it was torture. If your route took you over the best roads, between major cities like New York and Boston, you could make the trip in five or six days. You’d be hot or cold, beset by buzzing insects attracted by the horses themselves, and it was not fun.

Two major improvements boosted long-distance transportation to average a new and celebrated eight to nine miles per hour. The first was the introduction of raised Macadamized roads, with side trenches for drainage. This meant laying three courses of stones, the largest on the bottom with the finest ones compacted at the top. Riding on these high-ways dramatically reduced lurching and bumping. The first national highway using the Scotsman John Loudon McAdam’s method was an 80-foot-wide triumph that headed west from Cumberland, Maryland, which eventually became part of US 40.

The second speed-booster was the stagecoach. By the 1830s, carriage companies used relays of horses that would be changed every 40 miles or so along the route. With fresh horses attached at regular intervals or stages, the New York-to-Boston run was cut to one-and-a-half days.

At around this time, steamboats increasingly plied waterways, starting with the Clermont right here on the Hudson in 1807. Railroads (always called railways then) grew dramatically too, and in the late 1830s they were routinely clocking 15 to 20 miles per hour. This was unprecedented nonstop speed, and people paused from working in their fields to watch the wood-fired, smoke-belching roofed carriages pass by, their occupants enduring facefuls of soot and embers. By 1840, 3,000 miles of track had been laid, mostly here in the Northeast, and that Boston trip now took a single day.

Children in the 1790s grew up to be astonished at the rapid change in travel speed that they’d witnessed by the time they were grandparents in their 50s. It was a whole new world. There was a down side, however. As people increasingly voyaged by train and boat, roads were neglected and took on a rutted dilapidation by the mid-19th century. They became suitable for local transportation only: the way you’d get into town from your farm, or visit relatives a few towns over. This turnaround didn’t reverse until the infatuation with the automobile two generations later.

Cars were originally hailed as environmental saviors with their promise of eradicating the stench of horses, the thick swarms of flies and disease that their feces attracted and the unrelenting din of horseshoes on urban cobblestones. Cars carry our story to the present, when we routinely hurl ourselves at 72 miles per hour on the freeway.

Your very fastest body speed? On the ground it’s 180 miles per hour. That’s the rate of European, Japanese and Chinese bullet trains. It’s also the takeoff speed of heavy jumbo jets just before they’re airborne. It’s the fastest that most of us have ever moved on the ground.

In the air, the normal cruise speed of the good old Boeing 747 is still the very fastest of all planes, at 655 miles per hour. And that’s the speediest that your body has ever moved, relative to our planet.

This week’s column was adapted from Bob Berman’s newest book, Zoom.

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