Man and Machine Motoring

Horse versus horsepower

With Industry 4.0 on us, most discussions on change centre around disruptive technologies as a harbinger of progress, and the world of automobiles illustrates this well. The turn of the 20th century shows us how wary we are of such technologies that ‘threaten’ to transform the way we think, work, and live. It was a period of transition from horse carriages to horseless ones, aka automobiles. On both sides of the Atlantic, the new technology drew neighs of protest as well as roars of excitement.

A report in the April 1897 issue of The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal, published in the United Kingdom, is as revealing as it is amusing. It describes how motor cars received a cold reception at the otherwise “hospitable door of Mr McGreogor’s well-known Bath Hotel”. The report elaborates that the owner “keeps his livery stables as livery stables, and does not let them out as goods and locomotive sheds.”

A year later, in its June 1898 issue, the Journal reports a changing perception towards the automobile. “Motor-cars were somewhat in evidence at this year’s Derby, and in proof of the rapidity with which the prejudice of the public against these vehicles is being lived down, where 18 months ago they would have been greeted with howls and shouts of derision, it is worth noting that during the whole route there was hardly a voice raised other than to cheer.”

When they burst on the scene, “horseless carriages” seemed to have been viewed with almost the same suspicion that many of us now reserve for self-driving cars. Articles and even poems seeking to establish the superiority of carriages powered by petroleum/gasoline, steam and electric motors over those drawn by horses constituted the staple of automobile magazines. Apologetics for the automobile invariably delved into questions of safety and cost-effectiveness.

Horse versus horsepower

The October 1899 issue of The Automobile Magazine, published in the US, ran an article by Sylvester Baxter, ‘How the Horse Runs Amuck’, where he cites a study conducted by a “manufacturing company”. “A record of about six weeks comprises 476 runaway accidents of various kinds. These involve, probably, at least 600 horses, together with five mules. The mules were all frightened by bicycles! A classification of the first 269 of these accidents shows that 34 of them were due to the breaking of the harness. The breaking of the carriage caused 32. The dropping of the reins caused six. Fifty were occasioned by the sight of something that seemed unusual. Forty-nine were caused by some sort of noise. The dropping of something upon the animal, or a sudden contact with some object, caused 14. Fright from some object that combined both sight and noise, like a railway train or electric car, was the occasion of 62.” The Automobile Magazine also quotes the British Medical Journal as stating that a doctor from the countryside with “a large and scattered practice” would see a two-thirds decrease in his annual transport expenditure if he shifted to an automobile from a small stable of horses. Utility and safety were certainly two key factors enabling an expeditious shift to horseless carriages. The clinching factor, however, was the joy of a drive. And then, there’s the sheer wonder of seeing a thing of beauty. In its March 1897 issue, The Automotor and Horseless Vehicle Journal put out a story that describes the frisson of excitement that went through onlookers, as a motor car made by the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company swept through the streets of Bombay. The car had been supplied to “Mr J B Foster of Bombay” and was “sold to an Indian Prince”. The report is titled — A “bin ghora-ka-gharry”. Obviously, the writer had unwittingly mispronounced the phrase — “bin ghode-ki-gaadi” (carriage without a horse) — that had been chanted by excited onlookers.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 6:40:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/horse-versus-horsepower/article24025120.ece

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