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“Get a Horse!”: What Early Reactions to Bicycles, Automobiles, and Airplanes Can Teach Us About Self-Driving

Pessimists Archive - Early Transportation

Note: This is the debut column from Pessimists Archive creator Louis Anslow, a writer and amateur historian, whose Twitter account, newsletter, and podcast examine popular culture’s historic love-hate relationship with new technologies.

When the Wright Brothers proved manned flight possible in the early 1900s, the prospect of mass commercial air travel still felt distant and fantastical. It may have been technically possible, yes, but it was certainly not inevitable.  Only nine weeks prior to the Wright Brothers first controlled-powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, the New York Times ridiculed those attempting such a feat in a piece headlined, The Flying Machines Which Do Not Fly,” positing it could take between one million to ten million years for humans to achieve flight.

Two decades later, as airplanes were becoming a common sight in the skies,  and mass commercial air travel was transitioning from science fiction to science fact, this new form of transportation was still eliciting some strong reactions in both the public and the press. In 1928, the Times noted popular contempt for airplanes in an article subtitled A Skeptical Nation Visits Upon the Airplane the Doubts it Once Felt for the Automobile.” The article drew comparison to similar treatment of “horseless carriages”—aka automobiles—and other transport innovations, and it detailed the types of ridicule experienced by users.

Pessimists Archive - Early Transportation

This pattern of disinterest and derision often meets pioneers of transport innovations, and it continues to be as prevalent today as it was a century ago. This is true whether the technology travels by land or air; has one wheel or four; or is piloted by humans or by artificial intelligence-guided machine—as with the self-driving cars being tested on our roads today.

First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You

As ridiculed as the Wright Brothers and other aeronauts were in their day, early adopters of bicycles (or velocipedes) got even ruder treatment. As noted by the Times in 1872, an epidemic of heckling children (themselves unflatteringly described as a “shameless and exasperating mouthpiece of crude and unreasoning public opinion”), were blamed for the bicycle’s decline in popularity. The piece painted a vivid picture: “The velocipede rider was exposed, unaided, to the jeers and insulting comments of his tormentors. His style of riding was ridiculed; his dress, and especially his boots, were openly disparaged, and contemptuous wagers were loudly laid upon his probable mental condition.”

These reactions bear a striking resemblance to those elicited by early adopters of horseless carriages. Henry Ford himself was once called a “loafer” as he motored through town on an early automobile. “Get a Horse” was a common jibe thrown at early auto users, a term the 1928 Times piece said “voiced the confidence of human nature in the sure ultimate triumph of horse sense over folly.” In 1915 Henry Ford himself would use the term, sarcastically yelling “Get a horse!” as he passed a broken down automobile.

A century later, the Segway, the latest two-wheeled upright vehicle to hit the streets, received similar treatment. When the Segway was first unveiled on Good Morning America, host Diana Sawyer asked, “Is that it?” Later, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewert quipped that the Segway would do to transportation “What the beer hat did for both beer and hats.” 

Hoverboards, a more popular and affordable evolution of that technology, were also the butt of jokes, as in an SNL skit referencing a spate of cheap, poorly made devices combusting. Most recently electric scooters couldn’t even find an ally in Elon Musk, who, when asked why Tesla had not added one to its electric vehicle lineup, said that they simply “lacked dignity.”

Then They Fight You

Of course, it’s not just a question of dignity that mars first impressions of transportation innovations. When a new transportation mode first becomes commercially available, it is often a high-cost item which one would only desire once one already had everything else. In 1910, only a few years after the Wright Brothers burst onto the scene, astronomer William H. Pickering made the same logical fallacy about the value of airplanes:

“The popular mind often pictures gigantic flying machines speeding across the Atlantic and carrying innumerable passengers in a way analogous to your modern steamships. … It seems safe to say that…even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers the expense would be prohibitive to any but the capitalist who could use his own yacht.”

A cohort of wealthy early adopters can also breed a populist backlash. In 1902, a Senate hearing on regulating automobile speeds heard testimony that country roads traditionally used by farmers were now “almost monopolized by millionaire automobilists,” and that these “men of education…ought to know better.” Resulting laws were proposed to limit speeds to 15 MPH, about the speed of a horse-drawn carriage, thus defeating the point of fast-moving automobiles. Five years later, car drivers had become so disliked that farmers threatened to open fire on “autoists” who refused to stop at a pedestrian’s command.

Legislation can be wielded early in a new transportation technology’s life. Sometimes this at the behest of incumbents looking to suppress competition—such as when jitney cabs, an early form of ride-sharing, were outlawed in the early 1900s, after intense lobbying by leaders in the trolley industry. 

Other times, legislators are responding to sweeping public concerns about safety. In 1874 France would force early bicycle riders to have number plates, arresting those that failed to comply. In New York, bicycle riding was still prohibited in Central Park in 1881, a fact alluded to in an 1899 article critiquing a similar parks ban on automobiles:

Britain would be similarly hostile to cars, implementing notorious “Red Flag Laws” that “restricted road engines to four miles an hour in the country and two miles in town and required that any such contraption … should send a man sixty yards ahead of it to wave a red flag.” 

In the 1890s, a man in Glasgow, Scotland famously asked permission to ride his horseless carriage in the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, and was rejected.  His retort was prescient: “Our city might as well try to beat back the waves of the sea. … They surely are coming, and ere long they will be running in thousands along our streets.”  

Then They Scare You 

Early in a transportation method’s life cycle, theories and concerns about putting humans in “unnatural” conditions abound. Terms for new “diseases” are quickly coined by attention seeking doctors and researchers, which the press duly pick up on. Doctors with theories on bicycle riding leading to curved spines, insanity, and even an ailment known as “Bicycle Face” were widely reported on by newspapers. 

The automobile and aeroplane saw similarly unsubstantiated concerns amplified by the press, such as a full-page feature on “Aeroplane Face,” along with amusing illustrations, published shortly after the Wright Brothers’ first public flight demonstration.

A few years later in 1910, the New York Times ran a story entitled A New Automobile and Aeroplane Disease,” reporting that British physicians had found that, “When men pass rapidly through the air, the pressure on the face from the fast driving prevents the expulsion of…poisoned air from the lungs.”

The bicycle experienced similar scrutiny, often considered guilty until proven innocent, and commonly blamed whenever a spooked horse caused a carriage accident. In 1882 a bicyclist who went to the aid of a horse and carriage accident wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper that had reported he (and his bicycle) had actually caused the accident. He signed off “I should not have troubled you with this letter had it not been that bicycles are often blamed as the cause of accidents of which they are innocent.”  In another letter to an editor from 1892 titled “Bicycles Unjustly Blamed,” a reader posited that 90% of stories about frightened horses unjustly blamed the bicyclist.

The Times featured one powerful example of a rational critique—a drop in the ocean compared to the waves of irrational warnings found in newspaper archives—quoting a British paper on automobiles from 1896 in which the author, Alfred Sennett, voiced concerns regarding oil engine-powered carriages. He worried about “offensive exhalations” and the reduced comfort levels as compared to horse-drawn carriages designed for ease and rest.  The most striking point by Sennett read:

“We should not overlook the fact that the driving of a horseless carriage calls for a larger amount of attention 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.”

Concerns about the absence of horse intelligence and the subsequent need for constant human attention were very prescient: distracted drivers remain a massive cause of car accidents today. In fact, over a century later, all three of Sennett’s concerns not only stand, but serve as an inadvertent argument in favor of the advent of what I’ll call “driverless horseless carriages”—ie, autonomous vehicles. In the cars of the near future,  the absence of “horse sense” is addressed by artificial intelligence, the “offensive exhalations” of many combustion engines are replaced by emission-free electric motors; and interiors are once again designed with ease and comfort, not a constant attention to driving, in mind. 

The point: as it did with the steamship, the automobile, the aeroplane, and the bicycle, the inevitable skepticism that meets any new transport innovation will eventually subside, especially as new safety tools are introduced and new behavioral norms are established. That was true for the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford, and the maligned early adopters of the velocipede. And it will be true for the creators of the driverless, and horseless, carriages of today. 

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