Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Velocity’, as a reference to ‘swiftness’ or ‘speed’, entered English in the mid-sixteenth century, but it was not until 1847 that the term appeared in scientific use to refer to ‘speed together with the direction of travel, as a vector quantity’ (Oxford English Dictionary). As faster travel technologies developed, travel writers described how these new modes of transport influenced the travel experience. In turn, the interest in velocity influenced the form and content of travel narratives.
The speed of transatlantic travel increased dramatically during the nineteenth century. Crossing the Atlantic in the packer ship New York, Ralph Waldo Emerson notes in a journal entry on 9 September 1833, ‘The road from Liverpool to New York, as they who have travelled it well know, is very long, crooked, rough, and eminently disagreeable.’ This voyage took thirty-four days, but on his second transatlantic trip, he sailed from Boston to Liverpool in only seventeen (Mott 2014, 24–25). In the twentieth century, Charles Lindbergh's first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 took thirty-three and a half hours, and Amelia Earhart's 1932 solo flight from Newfoundland to Ireland (a distance just over half that of Lindbergh's journey) took fifteen. The introduction of jet-powered aircraft in the 1950s reduced the time of a transatlantic crossing to six to seven hours, similar to what we are familiar with today.
In the early days of the automobile, its speed was celebrated in events such as coast to coast US journeys sponsored by automotive manufacturers to promote the speed and durability of their new products (Shaffer 2001). The joy of speed is also paired with the threat of violence, which Filippo Tommaso Marinetti expresses through what Enda Duffy (2009, 247) terms the ‘crash wish’ at the beginning of Marinetti's (1909) Futurist Manifesto. Edith Wharton records her initial surprise at the automobile's speed in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), where she describes her first car ride in 1903 from Rome to Caprarola to see the villa of her friend, George Meyer, American ambassador to Rome.