World traffic: Transport opportunities around 1900

Holiday time is travel time. And the eternal question arises: Where shall we go? Today’s possibilities are countless and, depending on the destination and means of travel, don’t even need to cost that much. As early as 1900, Europeans had, as a result of technological advances, a wide choice of travel destinations to which they could head by ship or train.

In particular, travel on the high seas benefited from rapid advances in the second half of the nineteenth century and therefore became an attractive proposition not just for emigrants. With the changeover from sailing ships to paddle steamers, the average travel time for an Atlantic crossing was cut from around six weeks to about seven to nine days. For its part, expansion of the rail network brought places on land closer together.

Figure 1: The shipping companies’ various connections from Europe to North America. Also evident are the telegraph cables across the Atlantic.

Europe was the centre of these developments, becoming a hub of a global transport and communication network. The map World traffic: Map of railway, steamship, post and telegraph lines clearly shows the strong connections branching out from Europe to the rest of the world in 1895. All manner of shipping companies were active, with their ships crossing the Atlantic and, after its opening in 1869, travelling through the Suez Canal towards the Indian Ocean. The map all but gives the observer the impression of how close certain passages must have been.

Figure 2: Course lines through the newly opened Suez Canal.

This map also makes the lines look somewhat close, not to say confusing: It shows not only communication and transport routes but also provides, in insets, statistical details such as population figures and area coverages along with details of post and telegram charges. Travel times are also shown for certain shipping lines. So the map conveys a lot of information on limited space. But what’s obvious are the routes of the paddle steamers under different lines.

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Figure 3: Course lines from Europe (London, Bremerhaven or Marseilles) to Australia. In 1895 the journey from Bremerhaven to Sydney lasted an average of 54 days by the fastest ship.

Travelling on the high seas is also popular today, the cruise industry is booming and ever bigger and more modern ships are taking to the world’s oceans. More than 160,000 ships are in use on the high seas worldwide. The interactive map at MarineTraffic provides a fantastic overview. As with the 1895 map, it is possible to follow the cruise ship’s route for your next holiday before you leave home. Since the routes are almost the same today, it is only the ships’ comfort for those travelling overseas that has improved…


  • Geistbeck, Michael (1986): Der Weltverkehr: Seeschiffahrt und Eisenbahnen, Post und Telegraphie in ihrer Entwicklung dargestellt. Freiburg u.a.: Herder.
  • Paulsen, Reinhard (2016): Schifffahrt, Hanse und Europa im Mittelalter: Schiffe am Beispiel Hamburgs, europäische Entwicklungslinien und die Forschung in Deutschland (Vol. 73, Quellen und Darstellungen zur hansischen Geschichte. Neue Folge). Köln: Böhlau Verlag.
  • Zürcher, Walter (2010): Schweizer Reeder in aller Welt: Schweizer Schifffahrtsgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Bremen: Hauschild.

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