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?


4 Answers 4


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. Jul 1, 2014 at 20:58

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From: Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLIV, Number 139, 12 April 1919

Dredged with Elephind.com . The link to the source is here - https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=LAH19190412&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-payload-------1

My understanding is that payload was originally the load you literally got paid for in cash. Farmers would haul their harvest to the grain elevators and the elevator operator would cancel their IOUs. The last load was the payload - all the debts had been cleared. Life in agricultural USA was dominated by the idea of the payload for about three decades, and it didn't take long for the advertisers to pick up on the phrase.


The payload originates from train freight, specifically the amount of paying load cars could carry. The 1914 date in the question corresponds to the earliest date attested in the Oxford English Dictionary ("payload, n."):

1914 Trans. Soc. Automotive Engineers 9 ii. 126 The truck..was designed to carry a pay-load of 5000 pounds.

These pay-loads were the loads that trucks could earn revenue for carrying. By 1914, trucks were becoming sophisticated enough that they could carry significant freight.

Newspapers from prior decades show that the word was used to designate freight in transport, originally for trains:

He stated that the economy that would result may be estimated from the statement that the maximum load which one engine would then haul was 700 tons, 240 tons of dead weight (cars), and 460 tons of pay load (freight), while with such a reduction of grades and revision of curves as was proposed would increase the engine load to 1,000 tons, or about 350 tons of dead weight (cars), and 650 tons of pay load (freight), thus enabling each train to haul 190 tons more of paying load without any increase of expenses. ("C. G. W. RY. Improvements: Increasing the Hauling Capacity Without Increasing Expenses." *Kansas Agitator, 9/9/1898, p. 7. Chronicling America.)

The context here is train engine hauling - this is an announcement for the Great Western Railroad about improving efficiency. The latter form (paying load) suggests the coinage comes from the load that others pay the train company to carry, or the load that more than pays for itself. (See this 1849 source from user66974's answer.) Distinguishing payload from total weight or equipment weight was important. Several years later, the president of Great Western, A. B. Stickney, uses the word to emphasize pay-load from non-paying car.

"I have already explained that the basis of difference in rates is the differing relation between the weight of the pay-load and the weight of the non-paying car. ("Pleads for Care in State Rate-Making," The Minneapolis Journal, 27 March 1906. Chronicling America.)

The term was also applied specifically to ore cars, train cars designed to carry ore.

The tests involve the question of unloading, the pay-load center of gravity and the number of men required for unloading. ("Test of Ore Cars in Progress at Docks." Duluth News-Tribune, 12 May 1909. America's Historical Newspapers.)

So the word was likely coined for train freight within the transportation industry, and was generalized to other forms of freight.

[Note: This should be read as a supplement to user66974's answer, pushing the date back for "pay load" at least to 1898 rather than 1903.]


Just to throw a curve ball, which I think is a baseball term. I like to pan for gold recreationally from time to time, and I've noticed there are a few terms that originated in goldpanning slang that have persisted, e.g. 'flash in the pan'. A couple of others are 'mother lode', being the location in the stream bed where the gold is entering from a seam in the bedrock, and 'paydirt', which is grit containing a decent concentration of gold flakes. It's not a stretch to think that 'payload' might be related somehow (citation needed).

  • 3
    Throwing a curve ball is a baseball term. If you're going to put an answer that is citation needed, then it's a comment. Once you have enough rep you'll be able to do so. In the meantime, consider writing a question or answering a question more completely to earn said rep.
    – David M
    Oct 27, 2019 at 0:03

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