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Ban Horseless Carriages
Written May 11, 2013


Years ago, one of my Kentucky uncles gave me some advice.  He claimed that when faced by a threatening dog, a man could scare the animal away by taking off his hat.

You see, he explained, the dog doesn’t know what to make of a strange monster that can remove the top part of its head, so it flees in terror.

I give the dog more credit than that.  I think it retreats because the man, rather than shrinking from the confrontation, has taken an object in hand with the likely intent of hurling it violently at the canine.  People have been known to do such things.

But animals can be frightened by unnatural sights.  Suppose you’re a horse in 19th-century England, contentedly carrying your rider down a quiet country road.  Occasionally you encounter horses pulling vehicles in the opposite direction.  You exchange winks and nods with the other equines; after all, you’re all members of the same union.

Suddenly you notice an approaching vehicle with people on it but no friendly horses in front of it.  What is this?  Moreover, the vehicle is behaving strangely.  It’s making chugging and hissing noises, spraying clouds of steam and smoke, and occasionally spewing flaming embers.  And this fire-breathing dragon is coming right at you!  It’s going to pass beside you, a few feet away on the narrow road.  You must flee from the imminent danger before it explodes!  Turn off the road and veer into the bushes!

Thus it was that English horses were not at all pleased when steam railroad locomotives escaped the rails and began to terrorize travelers upon the highways.

The innovation can be traced to Christmas Eve in 1801, when Richard Trevithick, inventor of the high-pressure steam engine, drove a steam carriage he called the “Puffing Devil” up Camborne Hill in Cornwall.  The huge 8-foot-diameter wheels were intended to smooth out bumps in the roadway so that the fire under the boiler didn't go out.

Later, Trevithick turned his attention to railway locomotives instead.  But his younger friend Goldsworthy Gurney believed that road vehicles, not restricted to rails, would eventually become more convenient for passengers.

Gurney finally realized his ambition of building a steam carriage in 1824.  Four years later, he drove from London to Bath — a round trip of 200 miles.  In a foreshadowing of difficulties to come, he and his crew were met in Melksham by a shower of stones from a crowd of unemployed weavers.  The Luddites shouted “down with machinery!”  Otherwise, however, the demonstration run was a success.

Gurney’s vehicle, according to David Vachon in the February-March 2013 Old News, “resembled a stagecoach with the tubular boiler in the rear, where the luggage rack would otherwise have been.  Fifteen feet long, it could hold six passengers inside and fifteen outside.  The driver sat at the front with a steering lever connected to a pair of guide wheels in front of the carriage, allowing him to turn in a 20-foot diameter.”

Soon various inventors were proposing a system of passenger coaches.

Gurney sold three steam carriages to Sir Charles Dance, who used them to begin regular passenger service in February of 1831 between Cheltenham and Gloucester.  The nine-mile trip took more than an hour by horse-drawn coach, but Dance's carriages could make it in half an hour.  And his costs proved to be half that of the competing stagecoach service, so he charged only half the stagecoach fare.  Nearly 200 passengers a week took advantage of the bargain, another triumph of the free enterprise system.

Alas, powerful forces soon thwarted free enterprise.  The stagecoach operators wanted to get rid of the competition, of course.  So did those who were building a national system of railroads.  Also, writes Vachon, “Farmers who grew grain for horses expressed their fears that if steam carriages became prevalent, grain prices would decline.  Hostlers, grooms, stagecoach drivers, and those who raised and sold horses all expressed concerns for their livelihoods.”

Any change in the status quo was opposed even by wealthy gentlemen, such as the conservative members of the House of Lords.  “Many of them were large landowners who were concerned that replacement of horses by steam carriages would bankrupt the grain farmers and horse breeders to whom they rented land.”

After a few months of operation, Dance’s Cheltenham-to-Gloucester service began to encounter obstacles.  On June 25 the trustees of the Gloucester turnpike condemned the vehicle as a public nuisance that frightened horses with its “very great noise” and littered roads with hot coals.  (There was no mention of what the horses were littering the roads with.)  And according to Francis Maceroni, writing five years later, “the worthy squires and magistrates of the Cheltenham district, suddenly, without any necessity, covered a long tract of the road with a layer of loose gravel, a foot deep.”  The steam carriage was able to make it through, but a broken axle was the result.

Meanwhile, back in London, a bill was introduced to raise the toll on the Cheltenham road from four shillings to twelve — for steam carriages only.  Dance’s profit would vanish if he had to pay three times as much as the operators of ordinary coaches.  He joined in a petition to Parliament to roll back the tolls.

A Select Committee of the House of Commons considered the issue.  Their report dismissed various objections that had been raised by the opponents of steam carriages.  No, they were neither dangerous for the passengers nor nuisances to the public.  Their wheels actually did less damage to the roads than horses’ hooves.  And they provided real benefits.  “While horse-drawn carriages traveled at eight miles per hour, steam carriages could travel comfortably at twenty,” and at half to two-thirds the expense.  Therefore, the committee recommended in October of 1831, “legislative protection should be extended to steam carriages with the least possible delay,” and their turnpike tolls should be equal to those of horse-drawn carriages.

But the conservative House of Lords did not want to believe this expert testimony.  They refused to accept the report and refused to equalize the tolls.

When Gurney tried again a few years later, the Lords formed their own Select Committee.  Two locomotive builders testified that steam carriages scared nine out of ten horses, could not be stopped in less than fifty yards, and “will never be made to do any good on a common road.  I do not see the slightest possibility of it.”  The Lords readily agreed, and once again in 1836 they rejected the proposed legislation.  As a result, said Gurney’s principal backer, “the invention must stand prohibited in this country.”

However, steam engines were already being used in other ways, including powering farm equipment.  Teams of draft horses were required to drag these power plants on wheels from field to field.  Then around 1859, inventors came up with a self-propelled agricultural steam engine.  Heavy and slow, it was called a traction engine because it could also pull a cart behind it.

Once again Parliament felt compelled to take action against steam vehicles on the common roads.  In 1861, legislation limited such “locomotives” to 12 tons in weight.  In 1865, speed limits of 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in towns were established.  (The low-geared traction engines couldn’t travel much faster than that anyway, but no loophole could be left for a rogue inventor who might gear them up and bring back the dreaded steam carriage.)

Also, just as on the railroads, the 1865 legislation required a minimum crew.  “At least three persons shall be employed to drive or conduct such locomotive.... One of such persons, while any locomotive is in motion, shall precede such locomotive on foot by not less than sixty yards, and shall carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn the riders and drivers of horses of the approach of such locomotives.”

It wasn’t until 1896 that businessman Harry J. Lawson, with the help of influential friends, managed to have the Red Flag Law repealed and the speed limit raised to 12 mph.  Money talks, and Lawson had an opportunity to build motorcars using a newfangled internal combustion engine imported from Daimler in Germany. 

Can you imagine if every one of the 30 million cars in Britain today still had to carry a driver plus a mechanic and be preceded by a pedestrian with a warning flag?  Stable keepers and grooms might be unemployed, but there would be a huge demand for flagmen.

Here in America “the earliest regulations were aimed at slowing down the speed,” wrote Bellamy Partridge in Fill ’er Up!  “And in a spirit of what they insisted was fairness, the country communities sought to bring the speed of the motorcar down to that of the horse.  This meant a speed of 5 miles an hour in built-up sections and 10 miles an hour on the open road.

“Later, states began to take a hand in motor vehicle legislation.  New York went about it in a backhanded way with a 1901 amendment to the Highway Law.  This amendment contained a requirement that a motorist on approaching a restive horse must, if the driver raised his hand, pull to the side of the road and stop the motor vehicle.  At a further signal the motorist was required to shut off his engine and wait until the refractory animal had been led or otherwise encouraged to pass.”

Pennsylvania’s legislators had unanimously passed a bill in 1896 that went further, though the governor's veto kept it from becoming law.  The legislation would have required that any motorist who sights horses or cattle ahead of him “must pull well off the road, cover his car with a blanket or canvas that blends with the countryside, and let the horses pass.”  If the animals remain skittish, the motorist must “immediately and as rapidly as possible ... disassemble the automobile” and “conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes.”

In New York State, Partridge reported, there was “an American version of the British Red Flag Law, passed in 1890 for steam traction engines.  Instead of a red flag, our version required that a ‘mature person’ should be sent at least one-eighth of a mile ahead to warn the drivers of horse-drawn vehicles.  Operators of steam-driven motorcars had paid little attention to the law, although hostile magistrates had held that the law applied to any vehicle driven by steam.

“In Urbana, Ohio, an ordinance required a bell or gong to be sounded within 50 feet of a crossing and to be kept sounding until after the crossing had been passed.  Perhaps Bedlam would have been a better name for the pretty little town if this ordinance had ever been enforced.

“In every locality the lawmakers seemed to be outdoing themselves.  On the prairies of South Dakota, the city of Mitchell passed an ordinance forbidding any motor vehicle to enter the city limits.”  Michigan’s Mackinac Island passed a similar law in 1898, and (with a few exceptions) it’s still in effect in that resort community.

That’ll stop ’em!  No cars in town, period!  



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