The History of Exploration
Exploration has been a human endeavor since the earliest days of humanity. Evidence of exploration dates back to tens of thousands of years ago as humans have sought out and settled new lands. Throughout history, there have been adventurers and trailblazers who have pushed the boundaries of exploration and discovery, taking humankind to places never visited before. Today, we continue to explore, journey and discover more about our planet, and the universe that surrounds us. From Marco Polo’s overland treks to China to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, let’s take a look at the history of exploration from the 13th century to the 21st century and beyond.
Exploration in the 13th Century – Marco Polo
The 13th century marked one of the most iconic and important voyages in world history: that of Italian explorer Marco Polo. In 1271, Marco Polo set out with his father and uncle on a journey across the world that would take him as far east as China. As the story is told, Polo, his father, and uncle began their journey by traveling through Turkey and Persia before they headed further East. They eventually made it to China in 1274, where they stayed for many years. During their stay, Marco Polo wrote extensively about his travels, thus creating the first true travelogue of his adventures in the Orient.
His discoveries, including the inner workings of the Chinese Imperial court, the Mongolian territories, and much more, opened Europe’s eyes to the Far East in a way that had never been done before. His detailed accounts inspired numerous others to seek out their own explorations of the known world, making Marco Polo one of the most important contributors to the history of exploration.
Exploration in the 15th Century
The Age of Exploration, also known as the Age of Discovery, began in the 15th century and continued into the 16th century. During this time period, Europeans began to explore the world in earnest, traveling around the globe in search of new lands and opportunities.
Some of the most famous explorers of the time include the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who made four voyages to the Americas in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502; and the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and became the first European to reach India by an all-ocean route.
Other notable European explorers alive during this time period include John Cabot (who discovered the Labrador coast of Canada), Amerigo Vespucci (who was the first to suggest that the New World was a distinct continent from Europe and Asia), and Ferdinand Magellan (who organized the first circumnavigation trip around the world).
Exploration in the 17th and 18th Centuries
The Age of Exploration and Discovery continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries. During these centuries, European exploration was primarily motivated by the search for new trade routes and the desire to extend their empires and colonies throughout the world.
Some of the most notable explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries include Danish explorers Vitus Bering, who discovered the Bering Strait; and Russian explorer Ivan Fedorov, who mapped much of the Arctic.
English navigator James Cook also made significant contributions to exploration during this time period, including his voyages to the South Pacific in the late 18th century, during which he discovered many of the islands and lands of the region.
Exploration in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th and 20th centuries, exploration was expanded beyond the physical boundaries of the world, as the development of new technology and advancements in science allowed us to explore the air and space beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the late 19th century, aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright are credited with creating the first successful aircraft. After their first successful airplane flight in 1903, aircraft began to be developed to explore Earth’s atmosphere, setting the stage for the further exploration of our planet’s skies.
In the 20th century, several other aviation breakthroughs, such as Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in 1947 and powered flight around the world by the late 1950s, marked a new era of exploration and discovery.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the exploration of space began in earnest as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for dominance in the space race. On July 16th 1969, the US achieved an iconic milestone in the history of exploration: the moon landing of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong famously took his first steps on the lunar surface, and his famous phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” continues to be remembered as a symbol of success and exploration.
Exploration in the 21st Century
Exploration continues in the 21st century as technological advancements and discoveries in science continue to push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, we have seen incredible robotic exploration of our solar system, which includes the Mars Rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, which have been exploring the planet since 2012 and 2004, respectively; the Cassini spacecraft, which explored Saturn and its many moons between 2004 and 2017; the New Horizons spacecraft, which has been exploring the dwarf planet Pluto since 2015; and the Dawn mission, which explored the asteroid Vesta between 2011 and 2020.
We have also seen the exploration of deep space and our universe, most notably in the form of the Voyager 1 and 2 probes. Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 and 2 are now the farthest man-made objects from Earth, traveling further into interstellar space as they continue to study our solar system and the universe at large.
Exploration has been a part of the human experience since the earliest days of humanity, and over the centuries, exploration has continued to push the boundaries of what we know, understand and experience. From Marco Polo’s overland treks to modern-day probes sent deep into interstellar space and beyond, we have explored the world around us in ways never before dreamed of, and continue to do so in the 21st century and beyond. From the 13th century to the 21st and beyond, humankind’s explorations have shaped our world and our understanding of it.