The Earliest Vehicles

Alternatively-fueled vehicles are widely defined as non-gasoline-powered vehicles. In this regard, we could state that the search for alternatively-fueled vehicles began with the search for different modes of transportation. Horses and camels had been used for centuries, but people always strive to go faster, farther, and with less fuel. In this regard, and in the words of Lewis Carroll, we must “begin at the beginning and go on until [we] come to the end; then stop”. Please note that this discussion is spread out over a sequence of four tabs, in chronological order.

“Fuel” in ancient times was grain, grass, and water, which fed animal and rider alike. The “thousand-li horse” of ancient China was one of the earliest celebrated examples of a method of transport that could work with a minimum amount of ‘fuel’; it could travel a thousand li, or about 300 miles, without any grain or water. Widely celebrated, it was traditionally referred to as a superior horse used primarily by the imperial household and warlords, and has been discussed or referenced by many Chinese legends.

An Egyptian chariot. The battle depicted took place between 1318-1304 BCE, 35 years before the Battle of Kadesh.

The advent of the chariot has been attributed to the inhabitants of the [modern-day] Kazakh steppe, in central Asia, roughly 3500 years ago. It had reached ancient China quickly; Sun Tzu has said that “operations of war require[d] one thousand four-horse chariots, one-thousand four-horse wagons covered in leather, and one hundred thousand mailed troops”; according to the Ssuma-Fa (a military tome), the chariot contained “three mailed officers”. The chariot had apparently been disseminated throughout the Middle East within a few hundred years, as it featured prominently in the [First] Battle of Megiddo, as the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III had taken “spoils … [that] were considerable and included 894 chariots, including two covered with gold, 200 suits of armour and two of bronze belonging to the chiefs of Megiddo and Kadesh, as well as over 2,000 horses and 25,000 animals.” It also featured in the Battle of Kadesh in 1275 BCE, with contemporary reports suggesting that the Egyptians and Hittites both amassed armies composed of thousands of chariots, 2,000 Egyptian and 3,500 Hittite; this was the largest engagement involving vehicles until the Battle of Kursk in 1943, which had a grand total of 6,200 tanks, and was the second-largest engagement involving vehicles in military history. The Egyptian chariots were capable of reaching 24 mph and could turn sharply; they were generally drawn by teams of two horses, and held a complement of two – one driver and one archer, who used a composite bow. The Hittites fielded a slower chariot with a crew of three – a driver, an archer, and a third man who could have been a shield-bearer, or mobile infantry. According to the Egyptians, Pharaoh Ramses II “found 2,500 chariots attacking him, all the fast army of the foe”.

The Hippodrome at Caesarea. Hippodromes were constructed in every major city of the Roman Empire to provide entertainment, and were similar in construction to the modern-day horse tracks. The best example of chariot racing in one can be found in the legendary 1959 movie Ben-Hur. [Type “Ben-Hur chariot” in Youtube to find the scene.]

As the chariot advanced in design, the sides of the chariot were raised and armored, first with leather (from animal hides) and then with bronze and iron, especially towards the peak of the Hellenistic (Greek) Empire. At about this time, the role of chariots became less militaristic and more ceremonial, as the emperor and throngs of people watched chariot racing for entertainment; this was likely made more famous not by the Greeks, but by the Romans, which culminated in the building of the Roman Hippodrome.

The collapse of the Roman Empire generally ended the use of the chariot; horses and horse-drawn carts and wagons were the main method of transportation for the next 1500 years. Cavalry were successfully used militarily until World War I, featuring in the Battle of Tannenburg in 1914. [The last cavalry charges were used in World War II by the Poles; they were rapidly mowed down by the German Army.] Horses were mainly used, however, to pull static artillery into battle until replaced by trucks in the early 1900s. There would not be any [widespread] radical innovation in methods of transport until the mid-1800s, when technological improvements allowed for large changes in the way we travel.

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