American Transportation in the Early 20th Century

In Detroit in 1908, a generally unlikable, self-taught engineer named Henry Ford decided that everyone should have an automobile, and, thus, the right to go where they wanted, when they wanted. So Ford’s company began making one model — the Model T.

Contrary to popular belief that it only came painted black, it actually came in a choice of several colors (none of them black). And because of his assembly-line approach to putting them together, you could have it relatively cheaply.

Ford’s plan was a good one. The price of a Model T dropped from $850 in 1908 to $290 by 1924. As prices dropped, sales went up. Sales went from 10,000 in 1909 to just under a million in 1921. Within two decades, Ford and other carmakers had indelibly changed American life.

The average family could now literally get away from it all, which created a new sense of independence and self-esteem. Because of the availability of the automobile, new industries, from tire production to roadside cafes, sprang up. And by the end of the 1920s, it could be persuasively argued that the automobile had become the single most dominant element in the U.S. economy.

When it came to getting from here to there, others were looking up to the skies. In December 1903, two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, went to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. There they pulled off the world’s first powered, sustained, and controlled flights with a machine they had built.

Fearful of losing their patent rights, Orville and Wilbur Wright didn’t go public with their airplane until 1908, by which time other inventors and innovators were also making planes. Unlike the automobile, however, the airplane’s popularity didn’t really take off until after its usefulness was proved in World War I.

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