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Energy timelines


Before 1800, transportation as we know it today was almost nonexistent. Railroads covered far less territory. Trains were much smaller. Horse-drawn carts moved food and all other items on land, and barges moved them on rivers.

  • Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (France) built the first self-propelled vehicle, a military tractor that ran on steam. It could go 2.5 miles per hour.
  • John Fitch (United States) successfully tested his invention, a 45-foot steamboat, in the Delaware River.
  • Robert Anderson (Scotland) built the first electric car.

  • The railroad was just getting started with only 3,000 miles of track in the entire country.
  • The railway system in the United States had grown to over 30,000 miles of track.
  • By 1870, railroads had been built from coast to coast. Railroad companies continued to build hundreds of thousands of miles of new tracks over the next 30 years.
  • Railroads provided a connection between rural areas and cities, and allowed farmers to sell their produce in far away places.
  • Electric street car and trolley systems were built in Washington, DC, and in other U.S. cities. Streetcars made it easier for people to travel farther distances and encouraged the development of new suburbs.
  • Karl Friedrich Benz (Germany) built the first gasoline-powered automobile. It was a three wheeler.  
  • George Baldwin Selden (United States) invented and patented a horseless carriage powered with an internal combustion engine. The vehicle was never manufactured.
  • The Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank, started the first U.S. car company. Their company produced a gasoline-powered limousine until 1920.
  • Henry Ford (United States) first produced the Model T car. It was designed to use ethanol, gasoline, or any combination of the two fuels.
  • Cities began switching from streetcars to buses for public transportation.
  • The St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line was America’s first airline. The company went out of business after only three months.
  • The U.S. Post Office used airplanes to move the mail in order to establish an air transportation system. On May 15, Lt. James Edgerton flew the mail from Philadelphia to Washington during the first scheduled air mail flight.
  • As Americans now owned 8 million cars, the Ford Motor Company manufactured the Model T in large numbers.
  • The airline business got its start when the U.S. Post Office turned over air mail delivery to private companies.
  • Charles Lindbergh was the first lone pilot to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. His plane was called the Spirit of St. Louis.
  • Rail travel grew during World War II, reaching a record 98 billion passenger-miles.
  • With Americans now owning 50 million cars, oil surpassed coal as the country’s number one fuel source.
  • More Americans traveled by air than by train.

  • Malcom McLean, a trucking magnate, loaded trailers onto a ship and sent them by sea for less than the cost of trucking them overland. He was credited with shipping the first load of containers (truck trailers) aboard a cargo ship, from New Jersey to Texas.
  • President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which established the Interstate Highway System.
  • Pan American ushered in the Jet Age with the Boeing 707.
  • The Jet Age began when airline companies began replacing propeller planes with jet planes. Jet engines had far fewer moving parts; so they were more reliable, safer, and cheaper to operate. They used kerosene, which was less expensive than gasoline, and produced tremendous thrust for their weight.
  • 80% of working men and 86% of working women could drive.
  • The Boeing 747 was the first "jumbo jet" with 4 engines and 400 seats.
  • Freight moved by train surpassed the World War II peak of 771 billion ton-miles.
  • Congress relieved railroads of the costs of running passenger trains. Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, started operations in 1971, taking over long-distance train service from nearly all of the rail carriers.
  • President Richard Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act of 1974, part of a nationwide effort to reduce oil consumption. 
  • Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which among various mandates, required car makers to begin building more fuel efficient cars. By 1985, the Act required new cars and trucks to meet an average Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) Standard of 27.5 miles per gallon.
By 1978
  • The Energy Tax Act of 1978 established a gas guzzler tax, a tax ranging from $1,000 to $7,700 per vehicle on gas-guzzling automobiles.
  • President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which increased competition among airlines. New car fleets were to have an overall average of 18 miles per gallon of gasoline.
  • President Jimmy Carter signed the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 and the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, efforts to deregulate the railroad and trucking industries.
By 1985
  • New cars and light trucks were required to meet a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standard for fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon.
  • By 1990, 95% of working men could drive, compared with 80% in 1969; moreover, 86% of working women could drive, compared to 61% in 1969.
  • The Trucking Industry Regulatory Reform Act of 1994 continued the deregulation of the trucking industry.
  • As compared with 1990, now 88% of working men could drive, down from 95%, and 80% of working women could drive, down from 86%.
  • By 1995, 80% of households had at least one vehicle per driver.
  • The first hybrid electric vehicle, powered by both a rechargeable battery and gasoline, became available in the United States.
  • Americans owned 220 million cars.
  • A total of 98.8 million households (92%) owned or possessed a light-duty vehicle (car, small truck, or motorcycle).
  • Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) accounted for 27% of all light-duty vehicle sales, up 6.8% from 1990.
  • Trucking accounted for 65% of energy used for transporting freight. Water transportation accounted for 18%, natural gas pipelines for 9%, and Class I railroads for 8%.
  • The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 set a new corporate average fleet efficiency (CAFE) standard for cars and light trucks. The new standard requires car makers to meet a fleet wide average of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40% increase over the old standard.
  • The Energy Independence and Security Act also set renewable fuel standards requiring an increase in the use of ethanol blended into gasoline.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized new CAFE standards for light trucks, to be phased in by 2011.


Last revised: December 2008
Sources: U.S. Library of Congress, Everyday Mysteries – Who Invented the Automobile? ( ), March 2007
Smithsonian National Museum of American History, America on the Move (, June 2008
Smithsonian National Museum of American History, America by Air ( ), June 2008