The History of Exploration: From Marco Polo to Space Travel


Exploation ship and rocket ship main

Humans have always had a drive to explore. Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant, traveled to China in the 13th Century. His fascinating tales and the goods he brought back helped encourage an Age of Exploration. The Age of Exploration (1400-1600s) led to the European settlement of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Europe explored the interior of Africa in the mid-19th Century. The 20th Century brought the exploration of the icy limits of the Earth (North and South Pole) and reaching the final frontier (space). 

Marco Polo  

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant. Venice was a powerful medieval city-state. 

Marco traveled along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that connected Asia and Europe. Marco Polo had a strenuous four-year trip, including through the desert. Must be an easier way! 

He brought back tales of the riches and advancements of China, including paper, paper currency,  porcelain, spices, and noodles. “Italian food” originally was Chinese food! 

Trade between Asia and Europe resulted in the spreading of culture and ideas. Europe had a greater interest in finding cheap trading routes, especially ones not controlled by China. 

Age of Exploration 

The capture of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 cut off trade routes to India and China for profitable goods such as spices and silk. Spices were particularly essential in the age before refrigeration to flavor foods. 

History confirms that “water always finds an outlet.” When the Ottomans closed a door, someone was bound to find a way to open a window.  

The timing was right. For instance, the Middle Ages was winding down. European powers were rising with significant central governments that could invest in trade and commerce. Exploration required money. It was not a coincidence that Marco Polo came from a financial center.  

The Age of Exploration began. Spain and Portugal led the way. A look at the map will show how these countries were well located to use the Atlantic Ocean as an international waterway. 

Portugal invested in navigation, including inventing the caravel, a lighter ship that could travel farther and faster. Portugal circumnavigated Africa, exploring and settling its coast, and set up a trading route to India. The spread of African slavery was a horrible result. 

Spain hired Christopher Columbus. Columbus wanted to find India but instead found the Americas. Spain controlled Mexico and Latin America, except for Brazil, which became a Portuguese colony.  Meanwhile, Great Britain and France began to explore North America. 

Great Britain explored and settled in Australia in the 18th Century. Whalers and sealers sailed the seas around Antarctica. Europe had reached the seven continents

Exploring the African Interior 

Europeans during the Age of Exploration settled the coasts of Africa. Northern Africa, including Egypt, was a familiar territory from ancient times. The interior was largely a mystery.

Europeans learned more about the African interior in the 19th Century. Explorations, including David Livingstone (Scottish missionary and doctor) and Henry Stanley Livingstone (American reporter and explorer), helped outsiders understand African geography, resources, and peoples. 

A “scramble for Africa” began. Europe carved up Africa. They found many precious minerals, including gold, diamonds, and uranium. Africa also supplied rubber, coffee, cotton, and other profitable goods. Europeans also spread Christianity throughout Africa. 

The result was much pain and suffering to the African natives. They would become free once more in the late 20th Century. Decolonization, however, would be a hard and painful process. 

The Icy Limits  

Humans have always been explorers. Some people took risks to determine what was out beyond the safety of civilization. What was out there beyond that hill? What lands beyond the seas?

This spirit inspired explorations of the North and South Poles. Many failed attempts were made to find a Northern passage to Asia through the ice. 

Robert Peary, an American, after many tries, declared that he reached the North Pole in 1909. A later study suggests he did not make it.

Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, was the first to reach the South Pole. He was one of the first to travel over the North Pole. He might have been the first one to reach the pole itself. Roald died while helping to find an Italian airship that crashed during a polar expedition. 

The Himalayas are the highest mountain range in the world. The region was the birthplace of Buddhism, providing it with a sacred character. 

Many people sought to climb to the height of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. It continues to be a popular route for explorers today. 

Outer Limits 

Ancients humans were fascinated by the stars in the sky. They believed that our lives were guided by them. Astrology was an attempt to learn and study our fate through the stars. 

We have from ancient times desired to fly through the skies like birds. The inventions of gliders, balloons, and airplanes allowed us to conquer the skies. Space was the final frontier.

The Chinese invented “arrows of flying fire,” a primitive rocket in the 13th Century. Scientists began the modern study of rockets in the early 20th Century. Nazi Germany used deadly “V-1” and “V-2” rockets as weapons during World War II. They were an early cruise missile.

The U.S. and Soviet Union realized the military potential of rockets. The Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) into orbit around the Earth in 1957. The “Space Race” began with the United States and the Soviet Union competing for supremacy in space. 

Space did not become another military outpost of the Cold War. Americans and Soviets sent peaceful manned and unmanned missions. The United States had the first moon landing in 1969. We use satellites today for communication, navigation, and scientific research.

Science fiction allows us to dream about deep space exploration, including finding extraterrestrial life. Meanwhile, back in reality, we continue to explore space. The Voyager I space probe, launched in 1977, continues to travel. It is now over 15 billion miles away.  
To Infinity … and Beyond!

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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