Wikipedia describes payload as,

Payload is the carrying capacity of an aircraft or launch vehicle, usually measured in terms of weight.

Etymonline says,

payload 1930, from pay (n. or v.) + load (n.). Originally the part of an aircraft's load from which revenue is derived (passengers, cargo, mail); fig. sense of "bombs, etc. carried by a plane or missile" is from 1936. Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

However, Google n-grams has some results from earlier, like this one from Automotive Industries, Volume 30, Chilton Company, Incorporated, supposedly 1914, page 976:

dead weight of not more than 3,500 kilograms, and the heavy trucks, whose dead weight could be 5,500 kilograms, were both to carry a load of at least 2,000 kilograms, and with the aid of trailers should transport, respectively, a payload of 8 and 15 tons more.

or page 1338:

HERETOFORE the Prussian army administration has wanted for military transportation work only motor trucks capable of carrying a payload of 5 to 6 tons

or Vol. 22. page 721,

The tilt should be adjustable with relation to the direction of the propeller shaft and the whole power plant and the payload.

suggesting that the word was used earlier. One starts to wonder, whether this is a military terminology, and how did the usage later developed, whether the boom around the '55-65 as seen on n-grams is a result of (literal) rocket science or rather computers (later networking?) or something else.

payload n-gram 1900 to 2000

(source) (ngram search)

Are there more information about how this word was coined and how did it develop?


Actually Etymonline suggests that the first use dates back to 1917 and is referred to trucks loads while its military application was later, around 1936.

Payload (n.)

also pay-load, 1917, from pay + load (n.). Originally the part of a truck's (later an aircraft's) load from which revenue is derived (passengers, cargo, mail); figurative sense of "bombs, etc. carried by a plane or missile" is from 1936.

Ngram shows that military payload has gained currency by the mid 40's and that suggests that the probable origin is from a truck's load.

The increase in use of the term in the 60's is hard to detect since unluckily Ngram does not help from a semantic perspective. Aircraft payload, passenger payload or industrial payload don't show significant increase in that period.

  • Further research ( with the help of StoneyB) shows that actually the term is much older. Paying load" vs "dead load" is found in discussion of railroad freight as far back as 1849 and becomes "pay load" by 1903 where it refers to naval vessel's 'pay load' as its armor and armament.

It is also interesting to note the current meanings of payload:

  • payload(Noun) That part of a cargo that produces revenue

  • payload(Noun) The total weight of passengers, crew, equipment and cargo carried by an aircraft or spacecraft

  • payload(Noun) That part of a rocket, missile, propelled stinger or torpedo that is not concerned with propulsion or guidance, such as a warhead or satellite.

  • payload(Noun) The functional part of a computer virus rather than the part that spreads it

  • payload(Noun) The actual data in a data stream.

  • Feel free to incorporate anything you like into your answer, and I will delete the comments. – StoneyB Jul 1 '14 at 20:58

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