Back when America had ‘execrable’ roads

In 1899, A Journalist Predicted Automobiles Would Not Become Popular In The Country For At Least 50 More Years

March 2, 2017

America is car country. For decades, it had the world’s largest car population and the highest car ownership. It also had the biggest car companies. But that seemed impossible at the end of the 19th Century because it had terrible roads.

An American journalist from Massachusetts prophesied in 1899 that it would “take the U.S.A. half a century of progressive road building and improved paving before any but the few largest cities in the United States could utilise motor-wagons for the ordinary purposes of traffic.”

Severe climate in the country’s north also seemed to rule out the use of cars and trucks: “The recent tremendous snowfalls remind us that conditions are likely from time to time to arise in all northern cities under which the motor-wagons would be as helpless as a bicycle on a sandy road.”

That year, New York got nine inches of snow in a day and the city’s main roads were clogged for 24 hours. “It was several days later before the rest of the city proper was cleared, to say nothing of the other boroughs of Greater New York.”

The writer warned of the dangers of relying too much on motorised vehicles: “If… motor-carriages and wagons had entirely supplanted horse-drawn vehicles in this city, there could not have been a pound of freight or a single carriage passenger moved in the city for many hours, and the blockade of traffic and delay of business would have been perfectly intolerable.”

Motoring journalists across the Atlantic disagreed with his dim view of machine capability, but accepted the condition of US roads was “truly execrable”.

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Coach-building in peril

Just as legacy car makers are now worried about autonomous cars, at the end of the 19th Century carriage makers worried the motorcar would leave them without work. They had survived the decline of the stage coach after railways became popular, because demand for private carriages remained high, but when rich people started buying cars, how could the old business of carriage making remain relevant?

Carriage makers had reason to fear the automobile because the technology required to make it was vastly different. “The changes in carriage building may…become so revolutionary as to cause the industry to pass into new hands, unless the former directors of it are alert enough to adapt themselves promptly to the latest conditions,” notes an article likening the change to a shift from “bows and arrows to breech-loaders and machine guns.”

The main difficulty for carriage makers was that they worked mainly in wood. “Now, while it is possible tautomobilismhat not a little wood enters into the composition of a motor-car, it is easy to picture such vehicles, and good ones at that, into whose construction not a particle of wood enters. The modern motor-car is a thing of steel tubes, while its body may preferably consist of aluminium, light sheet steel, and a few trimmings not necessarily of leather.”

The manner of power delivery and the strain engines placed on the vehicle frame also differed. “It lifts itself into speed from a dead rest; it is steered within itself; its motive power is a matter of mechanism, and the questions that arise at each step are radically different from those relating to the carriages of our fathers.”

The article foresaw the rise of “a new crop of manufacturers…consisting very largely of concerns trained in the fields of bicycle building and electricity.”

A century on, we are again at a watershed in the history of transportation.

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