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10 Travel Innovations That Made the Modern World Possible

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Where would we be without the horse, the compass, or the steam engine? Probably right where we started, since we couldn’t go anywhere. These 10 innovations have delivered us from prehistory into today’s global village. For more on these game-changing developments, tune in to National Geographic’s Origins, airing Mondays, 9/8 CST.

In the grand scheme of things, our relationship with the horse is a relatively young one. The exact dates are hard to pin down, but experts believe the first horses were likely domesticated sometime between 4000 and 6000 years ago in northern Kazakhstan. Their arrival revolutionized almost every aspect of human life, from hunting and farming to warfare and exploration. At the time, they were also considered pretty good eating.


We think of the wheel as the most basic of inventions, yet human society had progressed quite a way before the concept occurred to us. We were making sailboats, metal alloys, and musical instruments in the Bronze Age before we had the technology to craft a symmetrical, smooth axle and pair of wheels. Once we did, though, there was no stopping us; some historians say the idea was likely only invented once but quickly spread throughout the inhabited world.


The first compasses were used not for navigation, but for divination as Chinese prognosticators in the 2nd century BCE used “south-pointers” to identify ideal locations for rituals. Later, Chinese inventors recognized the navigational value of a north-pointing needle. By the year 1000 CE, compass-wielding Chinese sailors could travel all the way to Saudi Arabia without getting lost.


With a fearless attitude and a few pieces of flexible wood, the Vikings conquered the world. Their longboats were an incredibly elegant improvement on existing ships. They were shallow-bottomed and lightweight, which allowed them…

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