Wow, the last post I wrote on here was the first day of the year. That’s some serious neglect.

Seriously, I have been doing a lot of travelling, and giving a lot of thought to the whole concept of travel lately. I travel for my new job more than any other job I’ve had, and I’ve had three trips for pleasure so far in 2008.

So far, after less than two months spent in 2008 I have made the following trips:

  • January, London, business
  • January, San Francisco, business
  • January, Lake Tahoe, snowboarding
  • January, Bellayre (New York), snowboarding
  • February, Aruba, vacation
  • February, New York, conference
  • February, Heidelberg, business
  • February, London, pleasure (and how)

As I write this I’m cozy in Lynn’s bed in Godalming, a town about an hour southwest of London. I’m in the middle of a two and a half week business trip, interspersed with some personal visits. By the time I get back to New York it will be March and I will have spent three nights sleeping in my bed in New York.

Not that this is too much of a hardship, as nearly all the beds I will have slept in will be nicer than my closet-sized bedroom in Manhattan.

All of this, plus the fact that I just finished reading Ken Follet’s new book (World Without End, very good read), has gotten me thinking on the subject. The book is set in medieval England, a time when most people lived as peasants working the land of some lord, or villagers in some town earning a living through some trade like blacksmithing or carpentry or some such. That, plus the economics of traveling via such slow means (and with such a high risk premium) meant that most people stayed within a relatively small radius of towns near their hometown.

Okay, that was seven hundred years ago. But what struck me was when I thought about the pace of progress since then. There has been sailing since before recorded history, mostly restricted to small vessels staying close to land. Apart from a few innovations in ship production, there wasn’t much difference between the fleet of Greeks sailing across the Agean to invade Troy and the Spanish armada of the 16th century.

So for more than two and a half thousand years naval travel is a risky business of wood ships and wind power. It’s not until 1802 that steam power really arrives on the scene, and it takes thirty years for the technology to overtake sail power’s prominence.

But then things move quickly. Here’s a brief summary that sums up the point:

  • ~3,000 BC: sail
  • 1802: steam
  • 1914: gas turbine
  • 1955: nuclear

There’s a fantastic animated chart that shows the expansion of European colonialism on Wikipedia and you can see the effect that both the advent of steam power (1800’s) and WWI had on the movement of European peoples all over the globe.

What interests me is the gaps between jumps in propulsion technologies: 5,000 years, then a little over 100 years, then 40 years. So why the delay in the next jump? It’s been over fifty years since the last naval propulsion technology was invented.

My uneducated guess is that naval propulsion is exactly as developed as it needs to be. The only things going by boat these days are oil, cargo goods, and tourists. For these applications, the speed of the gas turbine is sufficient and economic and there is no benefit that can be gained from radical new technology that increases speed. Speed is not an important metric to these applications. Or, I should say, the current speed is sufficient for the demand of the current applications.

What has happened is that the major market where speed IS important, namely the transportation of people, has never slackened its demand, and therefore an altogether new invention was required: the airplane.

I guess today’s business school professors would say that the airplane was a disruptive innovation to trans-Atlantic transport. When it came out, it was insufficient to meet the economic and safety requirements of most travelers. But, as always, technology improves, costs go down, performance increases, and suddenly everyone in the world who wants to cross an ocean hops on a Boeing or Airbus product and is at their destination city, without having to switch from a ship to a train, in just a few hours.

What amazes me is that it happened in my lifetime. My father tells a story about one of the first times he travelled to Asia on business, in the 70’s, when air travel was still maturing, with his friend Don Coker. They are sitting together on a plane flying out from Japan, and my Dad says, “Coker, you know we’re probably the only two Southern boys on the planet that are staring down at the South China Sea at this moment.”

Today there would probably be at least a hundred in the air at any given moment.

There’s a great chart on Encarta that shows the growth in air travel from 1958. Notice it says that air travel overtook sea travel for trans-Atlantic passengers in 1958, about twelve years after the advent of modern air travel.

By the time my February is over, I will have taken ten flights. Compare that to my Dad’s situation in the 70’s, and that’s pretty cool. Progress baby.

I love travelling. I grew up with it. By the time my Dad retired and we moved back to Princeton and I started going to high school in the US, I had lived more of my life outside the US than in it. Since graduating college I have lived in three European cities, and I hope to continue doing so in the future. I think travel opens the mind like nothing else. You cannot deny or disregard the humanity of any culture that you spend any significant amount of time actually experiencing first hand. Sure, you may still believe yours to be “the best”, but you will always know the truth of the universal human experience once you step outside the borders of your own country and your own culture.

The world is smaller now than it used to be, but it is still as incredibly diverse and I for one am proud to have seen so much of it. I think it is one of the great accomplishments of a life is to understand how things work, and in today’s world events thousands of miles away can have serious consequences and impacts on you no matter who or where you are.

Human history is nothing more than the result of thousands of events driven by individual people, so therefore the future of humanity is also dependent on the actions of humans all over the globe. By experiencing what life is like for different types of people all over the world, you increase your ability to make decisions and take actions with a greater understanding of their global effect.

It’s only a plane ticket and a hotel reservation away.

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