When the car began replacing the horse in the early 1900s, pessimists didn’t celebrate. They called it “the devil wagon,” and said its mission was to destroy the world. We explore why the horseless carriage was so scary, how it was eventually accepted, and what it can teach us about the future of self-driving cars.
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Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, I'm Jason Feifer. Perhaps you've heard about New York City's Great Horse Manure Crisis. It was a straightforward problem, really. In the late 18 hundreds, horses were the city's main mode of transportation. They pulled carriages and they pulled early versions of city buses and they crapped all over the place because that's what horses do, they take giant craps.
Voice Clip (New...: According to the 89th annual report in the New York City Board of Health, over 500 tons of horse manure was collected from the streets of New York every day in the early 1890s, produced by 62,000 horses in 1300 stables.
Jason Feifer: That's from a New York Historical Society video. And this had been a major problem in cities for a long time, of course, but as New York city became ever more crowded, the challenge turned into a full on health crisis. Some had predicted that by the 1930s, the city would be literally three stories deep in poop. And the city's greatest experts were summoned to solve the problem, but they just had no answer. I mean, what were you going to do? Get rid of all the horses?
And then the automobile came along. It wasn't designed to solve the Horse Manure Crisis, but that is exactly what it did. It replaced the horses, the streets became clean and the air lost its stench. Then once suffering city residents returned to health. In their book, SuperFreakonomics author, Stephen D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner use this as a parable of unexpected progress.
"When the solution to a given problem doesn't lie right before our eyes. It is easy to assume that no solution exists", they write. But history has shown again and again, that such assumptions are wrong. This horse manure thing has long been one of my favorite stories about technology. I love it for exactly the reason that Levitt and Dubner do, because it's evidence of how our world improves in unexpected, unpredictable ways and how we can't always draw a straight line between idea and outcome. And with this story in mind, I've always imagined that the first car is hitting the world streets as a way like a liberating army did. You know, people cheered, it's a rival and they threw flowers and they cried tears of joy. But then I read this description from 1912 of the first time a car came rumbling through Preston, Idaho. It was written by a local author named Mark Hart and reprinted in a history book called Images of America, Preston.
Voice Clip (Mar...: Merchants and customers alike appeared on wooden sidewalks, a patron with his face, half shaved stood by a Barbara with a razor in his hand. It seemed the whole town was there, standing amazed and mesmerized, eyes agape. As Louis Belief, the local implement dealer, rattled down through town in the most electrifying surprise of the year, of the century even, wearing goggles and a light tan duster with gauntlets hit him at the elbows. Louie sat very erect as he grasped the steering stick with both hands. As this strange vehicle rattled by, a young squirt, Ernie Porter, by name shouted in a stentorian voice, "Hey Louie, get a horse, get a horse."
Jason Feifer: "Get a horse, get a horse." What the hell was that young squirt, Ernie Porter, talking about? So I started looking around and, wouldn't you know it, yelling get a horse at a passing car was totally commonplace back then. It was basically the pessimist rallying cry of the 19 hundreds, and go ahead and Google it and you'll find all sorts of examples.
A 1940 issue of popular mechanics, for example, talks about the early days of the car and says, "it was back in 1903 when people would lie on the sidewalks and yell "get a horse" to the benighted operators of horseless carriages stuck in the mud of Main Street". And anyway worse was said, people called cars "The Devil Wagon". The English philosopher, C.E.M. Joad, wrote that quote, "Motoring is one of the most contemptible soul-destroying and devitalizing pursuits that the ill fortune of misguided humanity has ever opposed upon its credulity." He probably said that in an English accent, but anyway, when cars would drive by people who started throwing rocks at them. Drivers started arming themselves with guns in case mobs seized upon them. Laws were passed to practically outlaw cars entirely. Eventually, people began worrying that cars would literally destroy brains. Here's from a 1904 New York Times story headline to the automobile brain, which reports on a debate that took place in Paris between a brain specialist and a physician.
Voice Clip (New...: The brain specialist predicted that motor maniacs will be represented in insane asylums in the near future. There are already a few there and the contended that many more are about to be confined, though they are driving their cars around unmolested at the present time. It remains to be proved how fast the brain is capable of traveling.
Jason Feifer: And this got me thinking, that old tale of the car replacing the horse and quickly saving us from all its foul downsides, it isn't as simple as it's made out to be. Why were people yelling, "get a horse" at the thing that was supposed to liberate them from the horse? So that's what we're going to try to understand this episode. And to be clear, the car is an enormous subject. It's transformational quality cannot be understated in the fears and objections it triggered were widespread and, let's face it, rooted in varying degrees of reality. I mean, environmental concerns, very real. The Dean of Princeton University in 1925, saying that the car would "make the present generation look lightly at the moral code and decrease the value of the home." That guy needs to relax.
But in order to look at this subject properly, we're not going to try jamming everything into one episode. Today, we're only focusing on the earliest of days, the moment of transition when the car was so new that, much like the cordless phone and the wireless earbud, it was often referred to by what it lacked. It was the horseless carriage. So let's start by going back to the very beginning of the automobile and the technology that it was built on. The 1897 book, Notes on the Motor Car, tells what happened when one of the very first inventors of self-propelled cars took to the road. The books author, John Henry Knight writes this:
Voice Clip (Joh...: In 1769, a French army officer named Nicholas Cuneo built a massive three-wheeled carriage, installed a steam boiler on the front of it and drove it down a pair of street, raced along at three miles per hour, then ran off the road and crashed through a wall, spilling boiling water and hot embers everywhere.
Jason Feifer: So, things got off to a rough start and across the channel as more tinkerers began creating early self-propelled vehicles, England wanted absolutely none of this. In 1865, the British government passed a law that became known as The Red Flag Act. It mandated that every self-propelled vehicle have at least three people in it. One to drive, one to serve as an engineer, and a third to walk 60 yards in front of the vehicle waving a red flag at all times. It also limited all locomotives to traveling at four miles per hour in the country and two in the city, which was way slower than a horse or a bicycle. And now to be fair, at the time those laws were targeting steam powered locomotives, which were these crazy tractor sized machines plowing down the street, but they came to squash other kinds of new vehicles as well because as it turns out in the early days of automobiles, inventors were tinkering with all sorts of ways to get wheels to roll on their own.
Briad Ladd: So there were three competing technologies. At the beginning, there was steam, there was gasoline or diesel, and there was electric and it was not at all clear which of those was going to win out for quite a while.
Jason Feifer: This is Brian Ladd, an urban historian and author of the book, Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age.
Briad Ladd: And you can still make the case, some historians do make the case, that there was really no good reason why gasoline went out. It was noisier. It was dirtier. In some ways it was more dangerous, less reliable, particularly compared to electricity.
Jason Feifer: Excepted theory lad says is that gasoline went out just because it was fiercer. There was no big coordinated effort between inventors in America and Europe, but they all eventually came to realize that gas-powered cars moved faster than their steam or electric counterparts, and that made them feel powerful and more attractive to the first generation of potential automobile customers. But in England, that satisfaction was hard to find because of those Red Flag laws I told you about.
And so a civilly disobedient inventor stepped forward. You've already heard his name, it's John Henry Knight, the guy we quoted a bit earlier. In 1895, he built what was known as a paraffin-fueled vehicle, that's kerosene as Americans call it, and it ran at eight miles per hour. Then he drove it around the town of Farnham. A policeman stopped him and ticketed him for not having a license and not having a guy in front waving a flag. The press just jumped on this, mocking the government for its silly and outdated laws, and even the New York Times jumped in from across the ocean. It wrote, "it is very curious that the first step towards the introduction of the horseless carriages in England should have to be the beginning of an agitation against an existing law." So, oh, snap, I guess? Knight himself began leading the agitation. In letter to the editor of the morning post, we have the clipping, but to be honest, we're not exactly sure what newspaper that refers to, he wrote of a petition he'd collected signatures for and had it sent to Parliament. And his words were,
Voice Clip (Joh...: "That the public are not in sympathy with the present state of things is evident."
Jason Feifer: Evident, indeed. He was right. The next year in 1896, the law was changed to raise the speed limit and get rid of the red flag guy. In a celebration, a bunch of car enthusiasts got together in London. A local politician ripped a red flag in half and they all drove 54 miles to Brighton. The event has happened basically every year since. It's called, rather uncreatively, the "London to Brighton Veteran Car Run" and only cars built before 1905 can be used. We found some video of what looks like the 1920s showing a huge crowd gathering to watch some guys rolled down the street.
Video Clip (Lon...: Crank up the creaky old crocks. The veterans are having their annual outing to Brighton, celebrating the law of 1896 which abolished the man with the red flag.
Jason Feifer: You get a creaky old crock, and you get a creaky old crock, well, that actually wasn't really the breakthrough moment. In 1896, cars may have been unleashed in England, but the hatred of them worldwide was only beginning and let's be fair, the very first car owners both in Europe and America, did not help their case.
Briad Ladd: And where are they got to have fun was to take a country drive and so, they're going out on these country roads that have never had fast vehicles at all and then very little traffic at all, that are not paved. So they're creating huge clouds of dust. They're going at terrifying speeds. They're running over chickens and dogs and occasionally children, usually not on purpose, but some of them are.
Jason Feifer: Farmers complained, very reasonably, that cars were harming their crops. A 1905 story from the Rochester Union and Advertiser, which was called "The Devilish Devil Wagon", pretty good name, described dust being kicked up by cars and settling on vegetables, and oil flowing from the roads down to the bay where they'd end up in the belly of clams. By 1907, the New York Times was reporting that "farmers declare they will shoot the first automobile driver who does not stop when they signal." And let's not forget, this wasn't exactly a Tesla quietly cruising down the road, these old things were loud. It's funny, I always imagine people yelling, "get a horse" at a car that was just kind of earnestly chugging along, but oh no, this was a time before mufflers. Have you ever heard one of these old cars sound like? This is from a video of a refurbished Model T which will give you a sense of the noise.
Voice Clip (Car...: "Hey, get a horse. Get a horse, will you?"
Jason Feifer: The car quickly gained a reputation for being, as a man quoted in the York Herald in 1896, called them, "an amusing toy for adults." They were basically like the turn of the century version of making out on the subway or riding a jet ski. Stuff that's totally obnoxious and repulsive when other people do it, but incredibly fun. When it's you, because the early car wasn't really for anything. People weren't initially commuting to work with it, say. They were joyriding, and the earliest advertisements reinforced this. There's an amazing Dewar's ad from 1903 that shows an illustration of three darkly lit people on this crazy vehicle thing that looks more like a snowmobile. And it says,
Voice Clip (Dew...: "There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than automobiles. The pleasure of a spin over country roads or through city park is greatly enhanced. If the basket is well-stocked with Dewars, scotch white label."
Jason Feifer: The culture quickly split, you had car people and you had horse people, and they hated each other. Farmers threw animal crap at motorists, which, pretty solid irony there considering the whole horse manure crisis thing. They also lined roads with nails, or strung wires from tree to tree across roads to stop cars from passing. Both sides started carrying guns. A 1909 German law even allowed drivers to leave the scene of an accident because sticking around and facing an angry mob was just too dangerous. And soon this stopped being just a rural urban thing. Urban sophisticates were also turning against urban car owners. They saw car people as part of a culture of excess and indulgence, which was deadening ourselves to humanity. Here's what the famous Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg penned in 1929, responding to news of people being hit by cars.
Voice Clip (Ily...: At first, such things were known as catastrophes. Now people speak of accidents. Soon, they'll stop speaking altogether. Silently, they'll haul away the victim and silently write down the number, sentimental neighbors wiped them noses of course, and philosophically minded people argue about the new pedal. Commissions discuss protective laws but the automobile keeps right on doing its job. It only fulfills its destiny. It is destined to wipe out the world.
Jason Feifer: And that philosopher I quoted earlier, C.E.M. Joad, here's what he once wrote of the car driver, "At the end of the journey, he descends cold and irritable with a sick headache, born of Russian racks. He clamors for tea or dinner, but lacking both bodily exercise and mental stimulus, he eats without appetite and only continues to eat because at a motoring hotel, there is nothing else to do. It is at such places that the modern fat man is made."
Briad Ladd: It should be added that Joad is English and so there's a peculiarly English notion of "the Old World", and "the Old Rural World" in particular, where we took our rural walks in our tweeds, and that's being destroyed by these people.
Jason Feifer: The car people thought this was all nonsense, of course. In 1904, a German motor journal wrote, "the noble horse, despite all its virtues, still stupider than a motorist remains untouchable. Although it has been proved a hundred times that horses and horse-drawn wagons cause more accidents than automobiles." So how did we get from it is destined to wipe out the world?
Voice Clip (Opr...: "You get a car, you get a car, you get a car, everybody gets a car!"
Jason Feifer: Well, here's the traditional answer. It's all thanks to Henry Ford and his Model T that he released in 1908. Ford wasn't the first guy to make a car, of course, but he's known as the first to manufacture at such a scale that cars, for the first time, became affordable to the average person.
Briad Ladd: I believe it was under a thousand dollars a car. Although again, you have to factor in inflation for that demean anything, but ultimately several times lower than a car had been not very many years before. And so it became affordable for working people in the course of the years, from 1910 to 20, and then in the twenties with the prosperity, you get to the point where, by the end of the twenties, probably half the families roughly in America have a car. And then it grows from there.
Jason Feifer: So basically the average person is like, "The car is The Devil Wagon, the car is making everyone fat and lazy. I can afford to buy one of those things myself? Hang on, I'm just going to go buy a car." And by the way, factoring in inflation that $1,000 back then would have been 23,810 today. So yeah, affordable, though not cheap. And this is certainly a theme we see recurring with new technologies, affordability and acceptability have a proportional relationship. And there's a certain deliciousness to that, right? It's like exposing pessimism is just some form of hypocrisy. You people didn't hate cars, you just hated that you didn't have a car. But according to another historian I spoke to, the story isn't actually this simple. To start, the Model T wasn't actually the first time people could afford a car. Cars had long become cheaper than horses.
Ines Chiu: As early as 1898, an observer insisted that a petroleum canopy cart carrying two passengers, priced at $600 brand new, was infinitely cheaper than horses. Many motor buggies, particularly around the period of 1907 to 1908 were advertised to be cheaper than horses. Second-hand dealers and brokers offering affordable, used automobiles were already advertising in several magazines at this time.
Jason Feifer: This is Ines Chiu.
Ines Chiu: I'm Dr. Ines Chiu, people call me Dr. Chiu, I'm a social scientist. I work at the geospatial research lab at the Engineering Research Development Center at the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Jason Feifer: She wrote a book with the very academic title of, the Evolution From Horse to Automobile: A Comparative International Study. And when Dr. Chiu realized that cars were actually cheaper than horses before the Model T, she started thinking, if it wasn't the price that made people come around to cars, then what else about the Model T made it such a game changer? And the answer she came up with is pretty amazing. It had nothing to do with the Model T at all, she says. It had to do with the Model T's timing. Think back to everything we've discussed in this episode, all those fears, all that hatred, all that animal poop. As farmers and early car drivers were squabbling in the streets, the early auto industry was being driven to the brink of bankruptcy. There was just no way to sell a lot of cars in an environment like that. And the industry needed to change how people thought of the car.
So as early as 1902, it began running ad campaigns aimed at softening that image. At first, they just wanted to domesticate the car. They ran images of women and even children behind the wheel, along with quotes from the women saying things like "I have had no trouble operating my new car." The point was to make the vehicles less scary and more welcoming, and just as important, not solely a thing for rich people, it's for families too. Of course, what remains murky is whether this was a form of progressivism with images of responsible early-tech adopting women, far predating the later sexist stereotype of the woman, crazy driver, or if it was a kind of patronizing thing like look, even a woman can drive this thing.
Voice Clip (Fem...: Yeah, I'm going to go with patronizing.
Jason Feifer: That's probably true. But either way, this was just the first step. The second one was more important and it was this, the industry began making the car feel like the horse.
Ines Chiu: For instance, a 1903 old Oldsmobile advertisement suggested that the controls of the vehicle required the same instituted skill as directing the horse. So they described the wheels as like a pair of reins. In 1900, a motor car, to make it look more familiar and inventor attach in the dashboard, an imitation of a horse's head, which doubled as a gasoline tank.
Jason Feifer: Dr. Chiu has a ton of great examples of this in another, a 1904 ad described a car as quote, strong as a giant and sensitive and spirited as a thoroughbred horse. The auto industry had come to realize that their cars may have been more powerful than horses, but horses held a more powerful appeal. People trusted horses, they revered horses, so the car couldn't replace the horse. It had to become the horse.
Ines Chiu: So you have this effort to mimic an old established technology, take some of the features in it and incorporate it into this radically new, controversial technology in order to assist the public to make that conceptual shift where motion could now come from motor, not just muscle power, but that motor had to look a bit like what they're familiar with, which is the horse.
Jason Feifer: So by the time the Model T came around. This argument had broken through. Yes, the Model T was affordable and, yes, Henry Ford was a manufacturing genius, but the way Dr. Chiu sees it, the most important thing Ford did was just time his car correctly. People were ready to accept it in the car had become horse-like, and here, I think we can learn something really important about how to help today's and tomorrow's pessimists overcome their unfounded fears. People don't hate new technology necessarily. They hate unfamiliarity, but if you can build a bridge that's comfortable enough, people will eventually cross it. And did people still yell "get a horse" at horseless carriages after the Model T? Yeah, sure, for a while. Old pessimism does die hard, but perhaps one of the last people to yell "get a horse" was, well, here a New York Times story from April 19th, 1936. It's about a visit that Henry Ford made to Washington, Pennsylvania. He was picked up in a Lincoln limousine by Dr. Ralph Hutchinson, President of Washington and Jefferson College, and this is what Hutchinson told the paper.
Voice Clip (Hut...: I happened to notice an old Model T Ford of the vintage of about 1915. It had stopped and two men were trying to crank it. It had no fenders and was just about a wreck. I thought it belonged to some of the college students and called it to Mr. Ford's attention. As we passed, Mr. Ford lowered the window and called out, "get a horse."
Jason Feifer: The paper went on to report that quote, Dr. Hutchinson said, Mr. Ford appeared to get a real kick out of his joke and kick is in scare quotes for some reason, I don't know. Anyway, Henry Ford would have likely gotten a real kick from this commercial his company would run 38 years later in 1970.
Voice Clip (Com...: If the gasoline shortage has got you scared partner, get a horse, your Ford dealer has three little thoroughbreds named Pedal, Maverick, and Mustang too.
Jason Feifer: There's no coincidence that so many cars like that are named after horses. Get a horse, indeed. A final note here. Of course, it's impossible not to look back on all of this and think about driverless cars, the big new change in transportation that we're all about to face. Right now, they're mostly confined to small experiments out in the world and a lot of big talk from Silicon valley types, but eventually they'll be rolling up next to us on the highway, likely leading to a lot of freakouts.
Briad Ladd: The people who love driving are already saying, we'll never go for these cars because we all love to drive. So it will take a sufficient number of us who don't actually love to drive and I think that sufficient number may already be around, but that will in then create clashes. And so it'll be the reverse of a hundred years ago in some ways. In that getting rid of that thrill of motoring, how do we get that out?
Jason Feifer: Perhaps driverless cars will first become championed by a group of people for whom the road is now inaccessible anyway, the elderly, the disabled, even children, but Dr. Chiu says that the conversations of the past may also show us a way forward, because one of the things that people loved about the horse and feared giving up, is something that driverless cars now promise to give us back.
Ines Chiu: When they were transitioning out of from motorized from this so-called muscle to motor power. A lot of the argument is that, well, I can fall asleep and the horse will take me home, whereas a car, I need to constantly operate it. It's a lifeless machine, doesn't have a spirit.
Jason Feifer: In 1896, a scientist named A.R. Senate stood in front of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and in his overly complicated 1800 scientist way of speaking said much the same thing. And here it is, "We should not overlook the fact that the driving of a horseless carriage calls for a larger amount of attention, if not skill, upon the part of the driver than it is necessary in regard to horse-drawn conveyances for he has not the advantage of the intelligence of the horse in shaping his path, and it is consequently incumbent upon him to be ever watchful of the course his vehicle is taking." Which is to say, basically, the horse knows what it's doing in the car doesn't, and that could cause some problems.
And now more than a hundred years later, you hear the exact reverse argument coming out of driverless car advocates like Elon Musk, the driverless car is about safety they say. It takes human error off the road, fall asleep, and it really will take you home. Funny enough though, even when cars did begin to overtake horses, some people continued to look for that passive driving experience in cars, early cars. Remember that 1904 New York Times story called the automobile brain from the beginning of the episode where a brain specialist said that motor maniacs might end up in the insane asylum. It went on to wonder when a brain traveling in a fast car would just shut off. Is it 80 miles per hour? It asked is that when a human brain goes totally blank and a car would just be left to run on its own. If so the article said, well, maybe that's not so bad. Here is actually what the author wrote.
Voice Clip (Art...: If this is true, it must be said that automobiles run remarkably well alone and without the aid of a guiding brain. For even at their best speed, not more than 20% of them meet with accidents and a large percentage of these are due to defective machinery.
Jason Feifer: Now, okay. That is literally crazy talk. If 20% of cars were crashing at 80 miles per hour, nobody would say that's running remarkably well, but do you see where we're going here? What perhaps we've wanted all along? Maybe 50 or a 100 or 200 years from now, when people look back on the history of transportation, the human-controlled vehicle will just be a blip, a short anomaly between a self-guided horse in a self-guided car. That may be what we've always wanted, and the earliest car pessimists couldn't have seen that coming, of course, but imagine if they did. Imagine if they were told, "Hey, listen, this is just part of our evolution. We are building a better horse. It will have problems, yes, and we won't solve all of them immediately, but it will get you home. We promise, and it will not poop in the streets."
And that's our episode. And before else, I want to tell you about the archival readers you heard in this show. They all work at thedrive.com. It's an awesome site about all things, automotive, car-tech, auto news in-depth vehicle reviews, and more. I thought they were a great fit for this episode so I just sent them all the quotes and I said, go nuts, and what you heard was the result. So fun. So thanks guys. The readers were Devin Altieri, Christian Gilbertson, Eric Gores, Kate Knoll, Michael Spinelli, thanks also to Mike Guy, Heather Sciarrino, and Erin brown over there, and a special shout out again to Gores for pulling it all together. My wife, Jennifer Miller, also made a little cameo in this show that to be clear, she doesn't work at the drive again. That is the drive.com. Check it out. I'd also like to strongly advise that you check out the books by our two historians in this episode, both of which I relied heavily on.
Again, they are: The Evolution from Horse to Automobile: A Comparative International Study by Ines Chiu, and Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age by Brian Ladd. We'll have links to both of them, as well as to a lot of the articles referenced in this episode at our website pessimists.co. That is P E S S I M I S T S dot C O.
Pessimists archive was created by Louis Anslow. This episode was produced by Louis as well as Jennifer Ritter and we were edited by Chris Cornelis. We'd love to know what you think of the show so please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow us on Twitter at @PessimistsArc. That is P E S S I M I S T S A R C, where Louis is always tweeting out amazing little snippets of old pessimism. And as always, if you haven't already please subscribe to Pessimists Archive, wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a very not pessimistic review on iTunes, which helps us reach more people. A special shout out to archive.org, where we find a lot of our archival materials and to my neighbors, Tom and Meg, who let me use their spare office to record parts of this podcast when my apartment gets too busy. Thanks guys. Our next episode is going to be about the umbrella. Until then, I'm Jason Feifer and we will see you in the near future.
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