InTrans / Jan 25, 2017

Before we were here: CE transportation

Go! Magazine


posted on January 25, 2017

We’re traveling back in time to the beginning of the Common Era (CE)!

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at transportation inventions created during the first 1,000 years of the CE. In fact, you’ll soon discover how strikingly similar some of the earliest CE transportation is compared to what we use today! We’ll be looking at transportation like the first wheelbarrow, horses, and some of the earliest seagoing vessels.

But first, when was the Common Era? According to the Western calendar, the CE includes the centuries counting up from zero. So, for example, year 1 to 100 are a part of the first century of the CE. Today, we live in the 21st century of the Common Era—that’s 2,000 years past year 0.

Eastern innovation

Here’s what we know: Sometime between 100 and 230 CE (or the 2nd century CE), the Chinese invented the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow, then and today, is a single-wheeled vehicle with handles used to carry heavy loads—and people too!

Woman using wheelbarrow for transport, China circa 1895
Woman using wheelbarrow for transport, China circa 1895. Photo from Flickr user manhhai.

Also, around the same time, documented as early as 100 to 200 CE, the Chinese developed a “junk,” or an ancient Chinese sailing ship. These are sturdy, efficient ships that voyaged long distances in as early as the 2nd century. The structure and flexibility of the sails made the ships fast and easy to control.

In fact, junks were so good that the Chinese kept using them. Around 800 CE (during the reign of the T’ang dynasty from 618 to 907), Chinese traders increased their use of junks to carry their goods to markets abroad. Ancient junk ships were handy because the ship’s hull, the lower part of the ship, was divided into separate sections for the cargo. They continued to develop rapidly in the dynasties to follow and were used throughout Asia for extensive sea voyages years later. In fact, updated junk ships are still used today in China and abroad.

Come sail away

The Chinese weren’t the only ones sailing the open sea in the Common Era. Have you heard of the Vikings?

Painting showing Norsemen in rowboat.
Painting showing Norsemen in rowboat. Artist Hélène Adeline (1909) via Wikimedia Commons.

Back then, Vikings lived in what is now known as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Vikings were infamous for their warships, which were used to raid cities and towns throughout Europe. These ships, constructed primarily of wood, made for speedy (and successful) voyages across the sea. The Vikings had these “speedy ships” in as early as 700 CE.


An important component of transportation is that it develops to fit the ever-evolving demands of civilization.

For example, by 900 CE, horses could travel farther—while pulling heavier loads—thanks to the invention of iron horseshoes and improved harnesses. Horses would be a huge component of transportation in the thousand years to come.

Additionally, in the millennium to follow, innovation adapted to the needs of the people who dreamed of sailing across the entire world! And that called for larger, stronger ships, equipped for long ocean voyages. But, it surely wasn’t “smooth sailing.” Check out the next article to look at the evolution of transportation in the second half of the Common Era.

Related links

(Video) Chinese Junk (1961):

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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