New Forms of Transportation
The first part of the twentieth century was filled with invention, and not just in science. Many aspects of modern society were being formed, and the period was ripe with creation and innovation. The twentieth century was a grand time to be an inventor, in no small part because advances in science and technology provided for the existence of innovation in other areas. Some of the major innovations of this period (which would be relevant to everyone of the time, including Einstein) included the automobile, the airplane, the radio and phonograph, and jazz music.
The history of the automobile is more complicated than one might expect. Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile. In fact, Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci came up with designs for motorized vehicles, although such designs would not be executed for hundreds of years. The first steam-powered vehicle was developed by Nicolas Cugnot in 1769; it had to stop to build up power every few minutes, though, and as such was not very efficient.
The first gas-powered cars came about toward the end of the nineteenth century. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler invented the precursor to the modern gasoline engine. Scientific developments led to the refinement of the internal combustion engine, which became the primary force behind the creation of the modern motorcar. The first patent for a gasoline-powered automobile was given to Karl Benz in 1886. While a variety of attempts at the automobile were constructed as one-off ventures, it was the assembly line that truly allowed for mass production of cars.
Where did the word “automobile” come from?
The word actually came from a fourteenth-century artist, Martini, who developed a design for a man-powered vehicle. The word comes from the Latin roots auto (meaning “self”) and mobils (meaning “movement”).
What was the big deal about mass production? Everything! Mass production was incredibly important for the automobile to take off as a viable invention for two main reasons. It meant cars were suddenly available to many more people, and increased efficiency in automobile production would bring the cost down considerably (making them accessible financially). The curved dash Oldsmobile was the first car to be mass-produced using an assembly line in 1901, although Henry Ford dramatically improved the concept of the assembly line in 1913. Ford's Model T of 1909, while not the first automobile, was one of the first to be successfully mass-produced. These innovations in automobile design and production were roughly contemporary with Einstein's development of the theory of special relativity.
When people had to travel across the ocean prior to the twentieth century, such excursions were done by boat. It was either that, or swim. However, late-nineteenth-century innovation would lead to the development of an entirely new way to travel–the airplane. The late 1890s was a period in which a number of inventors were trying their hand at developing flying machines. Otto Lilienthal's hang glider experiments, for example, served as a major predecessor to the airplane.
The first major successful airplane innovation, though, would come at the hands of two Americans, the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur Wright were the developers of the first manned airplane. They were actually trained as bicycle builders, and they owned a bicycle repair shop before turning to aviation. After years of study and testing, in 1903, they successfully flew their first heavier-than-air craft in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They didn't start out building complete airplanes, of course–first they built a kite, followed by several gliders. The momentous flight in Kitty Hawk was the first of its kind–it was sustained, powered, and controlled. Wilbur Wright would go on to make several public exhibition flights in France in 1908.
The development of the airplane represented a complete turning point, historically. Not only could people suddenly travel to places that had been previously unreachable, they could do so relatively quickly. Commerce enjoyed entirely new boundaries as well, making it possible to sell goods in places previously unthinkable. The airplane would also have political ramifications; it would change the way wars were fought. The bombing of Hiroshima, for example (in which Einstein had a minimal role, see Chapter 15 for more information) couldn't have been conceived, let along carried out, if not for the advent of air travel.