Here's a hint: Air cargo ranks as No. 4.
The ancient Greek and Roman armies employed officers called logistikas, who were responsible for getting food, weapons and other supplies to the troops. The 21st century definition of logistics is not much different: Get the right items to the right place at the right time.
For centuries, the definition of logistics hasn't changed much: Get the right items to the right place at the right time.
But across the intervening centuries, some innovations stand out as breakthroughs in logistics. You could argue in favor of bar coding (1952) or Ford's mass production of the Model T (1913). But we think the three most important logistics world-changers were:
1. The Iron Horse. Trains, planes and motor vehicles of all kinds would not have been possible without development of the steam engine, perfected in the late 1700s by James Watt. It was the steam engine, specifically the steam locomotive, that fueled the Industrial Revolution, the spread of mass transportation and the urbanization of America. Nearly every small town in America had both a passenger and freight station, often with a "team track" where freight was offloaded to horse-drawn wagons. By 1890, railroads hauled half a billion passengers and 690 million tons of cargo.
2. The interstate highway system. Championed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and launched in 1956, expressways now cover just over 47,000 miles and touch nearly everyone in the country. "... [T]he Interstate System is a linear economy-on-wheels," Peter T. Kilborn wrote in The New York Times in 2001. "A distinct and self-sustaining 51st state, in a sense, that generates life and commerce." It's hard to imagine logistics without it.
3. Eighteen-wheelers. The advent of interstate highways gave rise to another logistics breakthrough: semitrailer trucks, also known as "big rigs" or 18-wheelers, which haul freight across country, from loading dock to loading dock. And where would global logistics be today without the containerized intermodal freight transport system that evolved as an innovative way to "piggyback" freight via ship or truck?
Want to add a logistics innovation to this list? We'd love to hear from you. Just comment below so we can continue the conversation.