A century of technology

Connecting Europe

Aerial photograph of a highway used as teaching material. Below: a quote from Hilaire Belloc about ‘the Road which is the channel of all trade and, what is more important, of all ideas’

The most famous train in history would never have run its illustrious course without some serious preparatory work. The Orient Express, which connected Paris with Constantinople, was a staple of luxury traveling that started operating in 1883.

Over a century of Orient Express, 2006, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, In copyright

The unique and ambitious business venture was devised by Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers who had introduced the concept of sleeper cars allowing for overnight travels in the late 1860s.

Luxury dining in the renovated restaurant of the Orient Express

The necessary railway infrastructure had yet to be put in place. This came about due to the vision and personal wish of the Turkish Sultan Abdülaziz to open up Constantinople to international train travellers. With this issue solved, another challenge presented itself: trajectory planning. As European railway companies had not already cooperated, train timetables weren’t aligned, making cross-continental travelling almost impossible. Only after a dedicated International Timetable Conference was installed in 1872, the road to epic train adventures lay wide open.

Further railway integration in the early 20th century was hindered by the use of different standards for gauge (track width). While a gauge of 1,435 mm (also called Stephenson or European gauge) became the standard used in most of Western and Central Europe, those in the former Soviet countries, the Iberian peninsula and the United Kingdom still differ in width - even today.

The last years of the passenger and freight traffic of the Gartetal narrow gauge (1957-1960), documentary from 2005 TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC-ND

The continuous expansion of the railroad infrastructure was partly a result of wartime innovations, partly of subsequent economic and industrial developments. In the wake of the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the early 1950s, efforts were made to increase imports and exports. A series of harmonizing rules, pertaining to tracks, powerlines and signalling as well as to tax tariffs and administration, helped knit a tighter European network for transport and travel.

A more efficient and economic trans-European transport sector took a leap forward with the opening of the Channel Tunnel rail link between France and the United Kingdom in 1994. Four freight and four passenger trains can run in both directions every hour, accounting for a large part of the car and truck traffic between Britain and continental Europe.

The tunnel helps to alleviate the problem of road congestion that has dramatically intensified throughout the 20th century.

Traffic jams, however, are not a new phenomenon: even in Roman times road blockages were reported. Centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci tried his hand at freeing up Italian roads from high traffic. Proposing multi-level constructions and distinct trajectories for vehicles and pedestrians, his innovative approach would only be realised well into the 20th century.

By that time, the speed and quantity of motorised means of transport had taken the issue to a whole new level: congestion became one of the most pressing problems of the postmodern world.

Building more, bigger and better-engineered roads was a part of the remedy attempted by most European countries. Italy was at the vanguard, constructing arterial networks of freeways known as autostrada in the 1920s. Avoiding grade crossings and limiting access, these roads aimed at clearing hazards and hindrances in order to maximize the smoothness of the driving experience.

The first autostrada in The Netherlands, 1938, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Public domain

The Netherlands were second in line: in 1937 the Rijksweg 12 (still in use today) connecting Voorburg with Zoetermeer was the first road in the world to be equipped with emergency lanes. Germany started building Autobahnen in the 1940s for military as well as economic purposes.

View on the motorway through a car's windshield in 50s

While postwar Europe saw a steep increase in the number of vehicles on the road, work on infrastructure was in many cases delayed because of financial and reconstruction priorities. Nonetheless, in the next decades the network of roads for long-distance driving was exponentially expanded.

Motorways in the UK would go on to cover 1,600 kilometres in the wake of the Special Roads Act issued in 1949. France and Italy invested heavily in highways mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, connecting northern regions with sunny destinations in the south important for tourism.

The French A6 - autoroute du sud or autoroute du soleil - linking Paris to Lyon was completed in 1971, and provides easy access to a southern trajectory stretching all the way to Marseille.

Despite the growing network of roads, Europe found it hard to keep up with the skyrocketing number of cars in circulation. From initially being a luxury product for the happy few or sports enthusiasts, the automobile crossed the threshold of the 20th century as a commodity that ever more households could afford.

A group of women in a car parked on a meadow

With the dramatic increase in car traffic, soon a plethora of road accidents - often involving motorised vehicles in collision with horse-driven carts or pedestrians - ensued.

Group of people surrounding a crashed motorbike with sidespan

People not only lacked driving skills but also on-road experience. They had little sense of speed and didn’t know enough about car mechanics nor dynamics to understand the consequences of their actions.

People gather to inspect the site of a car crash that left a street lamp at a precarious angle.

To help manage this new urban environment, a system of symbols, agreements and laws was put into place. Together with training programs and authorised driving licenses, traffic lights, stop signs, parking metres, speeding checks, breathalyser tests and speed ramps were to keep drivers and their environment safe.

Remote control-operated traffic lights

Infringement of traffic laws increasingly led to litigation. Between the first conviction for speeding (a whopping 13 kilometres per hour in 1896) and the fastest driver recorded so far (a motorcyclist cruising at 282 kilometres per hour) lie about a hundred years… and hundreds of thousands of tickets and fines - the largest of which is rumored to be €170,000 for a reckless driver from Finland.

A police-woman directing the traffic in Tel Aviv

By the end of the century, a world or a future without cars had become unimaginable.

The landscapes and cities we live in today are, to a large extent, defined by cars. Automobiles can take us anywhere at any time, changing and defining our concept of distance. But ecological stress has forced us to start thinking about climate change, waste, pollution and its impact on our health. Two decades into the new millennium, the debate has turned urgent. Is it too late for a different policy of technology that no longer focuses on individual comfort but on the well-being of an entire ecosystem?