Wheels Got Turning
Historical Perspective on American Roads
Return to the "History
The history of the automobile covers
over one hundred years -- learn about the inventors and famous car models,
view time lines or read about the first gasoline powered car.
over a century ago, steamships, canals, railroads,
and the telegraph were up and running. They
were the technological marvels of the 19th century-- setting the stage
for the 20th century. Yet the invention that would spark a revolution in
transportation was a simple two-wheeler. The bicycle. Its popularity in
the 1880s and 1890s spurred interest in the nation's roads.
On October 3, 1893, General Roy Stone,
a Civil War hero and good roads advocate, was appointed Special Agent in
charge of the new Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) within the Department of
Agriculture. With a budget of $10,000, ORI promoted new rural road development
to serve the wagons, coaches, and bicycles on America's dirt roads.
At this same time, two bicycle
mechanics in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Duryea
Brothers, built the first gasoline-powered "motor wagon" to be operated
in the United States. Lacking any brakes on its historic first run in September
1893, the vehicle was brought to a stop by simply driving it into a curb.
The Duryea Brothers' success was little noted at the time, but it got the
wheels turning for the introduction of the automobile, which would literally
change the landscape of America. (Two other bicycle mechanics, brothers
and Orville Wright, would launch the aviation revolution at Kitty Hawk,
North Carolina, in December 1903.)
In 1908, Henry
Ford introduced his low-priced, highly efficient Model T. Its widespread
popularity created pressure for the federal government to become more directly
involved in road development. With rural interests adding to the battle
cry of "Get the farmers out of the mud!" Congress passed the Federal- Aid
Road Act of 1916. It created the Federal-Aid Highway Program under which
funds were made available on a continuous basis to state highway agencies
to assist in road improvements. But before the program could get off the
ground, the United States entered World War I.
Things took off again in the Roaring
20s when the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), as ORI was then called, was
authorized by the Federal Highway Act of 1921 to provide funding to help
state highway agencies construct a paved system of two-lane interstate
highways. During the 1930s, BPR helped state and local governments create
Depression-era road projects that would employ as many workers as possible.
When America entered World War II in 1941, the focus turned toward providing
roads that the military needed. After the war, the nation's roads were
in disrepair, and congestion had become a problem in major cities. In 1944,
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed legislation authorizing a network
of rural and urban express highways called the "National System of Interstate
Highways." Unfortunately, the legislation lacked funding. It was only after
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956
that the Interstate program got under way.
From the start, the Interstate System
was hailed as the "Greatest Public Works Project in History"--a challenge
embraced by several generations of highway engineers. But even more challenges
were forthcoming. In the 1960s, BPR began to focus increasingly on environmental
concerns and on creating urban road networks that tied into other land-use
plans and transportation options, including mass transit. By 1966, the
changing times prompted legislation to establish the U.S. Department of
Transportation (DOT). When the new department opened in April 1967, BPR,
renamed the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), was one of the original
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, FHWA
worked with the states to open 99 percent of the designated 42,800-mile
Interstate System--now officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National
System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
The history of roads and asphalt.