When Cars Got Stepmotherly Treatment

Back in the 1890s, the London Electrical Cab Company — yes, London had electric cabs 130 years ago — was allowed to charge its 80-odd cars from the city’s main supply only for a few hours after 1 o’ clock in the night. The charging had to be done hurriedly and “many batteries were improperly charged or the current was put into the batteries too rapidly.” So, in 1899, the cab company built its own little charging plant equipped with two Babcock and Wilcox boilers, Willians’ engines and General Electric dynamos with a total power generation of 500 horse power. This not only improved the reliability of the cab operations but also allowed the company to hire out its electric brougham vehicles for balls, dinner-parties, etc.

Cars were an oddity in the 1890s, and traditionalists regarded them with fear, apprehension and suspicion. Every report of a breakdown was played up, even fictionalised with accounts of “exploding electric cabs gushing forth violet streams of forked lightnings.” On the other hand, accidents involving horse-drawn carriages were downplayed “unless very serious injuries or actual death results to human beings.”

On March 2, 1899, the Dorset County Chronicle reported that a motorcar had passed through Dorchester town the previous day. It was “a sight still rare enough to cause a wild sensation in the streets.”

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