Now on AIGA's Voice magazine: Gone in Sixty Seconds
A century ago the word horseless had many of the same overtones wireless does today: it seemed high tech and futuristic. But the horseless carriage appeared because of the liabilities of the horse. I was reminded of this by the opening of the exhibition The Horse at the American Museum of Natural History, through January 4, 2009. www.amnh.org. As we think about moving beyond the internal combustion engine it might be useful to look at why and how we moved beyond the horse, which had served for thousands of years. It might be helpful in thinking about what replaces automobiles to contemplate what automobiles themselves replaced. Might the transition from horse to automobile and the interplay of invention and economics s involved in it my offer some kind of guide, at this the other end of the reign of the horseless carriage? . At the end of the nineteenth century, the idea was improbable that miniature personal locomotives powered by new types of motors using highly evaporative by products of petroleum might replace the horse. (Gasoline was sometimes dumped as part of the refinement of useful kerosene from oil.) Why did the horse go away? It was recyclable and sustainable. But it was also filthy. Eventually the costs of the horse became insupportable, what the economists call the ‘externalities’ of the horse economy became intolerable. Will that happen with the automobile? At the Museum show, you can learn that horses filled the city streets with dirt. There were still 130,000 horses on the streets of New York in 1900. “The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable.” In New York, this meant about 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine added to the streets every day, according to figures cited by James Flink in his definitive The Automobile Age (MIT Press 1988) Two thirds of street waste was manure, euphemistically referred to as mud, filled city streets and in the summer dried to a deadly windborne dust bearing bacteria and allergens. The equivalent of today’s abandoned car on the belt parkway was the dead horse, of which some 15,000 a year had to be retrieved at city cost. The show at the Natural History Museum suggest what a late arrive the horse was the human world, well after the pig or cow and initially for the same reason: edibility. But horses shared an important characteristic with humans, sociability. The chariot goes back the earliest civilizations, but the wheel seemed to arrive only with a horse to pull it. (In the Americas, famously, where there were no horses, wheels appeared on toys, not full sized vehicles. Riding horseback, however, was a different matter and a later arrival. The Greeks who understood such things as catharsis in tragic drama and the Pythagorean theorem, only had the chariot. They were shocked and amazed at the idea of a man riding on the back of a horse. When the Greeks first encountered the Scythians, nomadic warriors who did just that, around 1500 BC they related them to the centaur. Xenophon called the horse “a wonder of God” but the man on horseback was as shocking an arrival at the banquet of Greek life as hell's angels would be today riding into at a country club wedding. The development of the horse collar, the saddle and the stirrup are each the subject of many debates among social and technological histories: a famous at the time book of 1952 by Lynn Whyte pushed technological determinism to its utmost, arguing that the stirrup created feudalism by changing land distribution and creating the knight. The word horse gives us cavalier, chevalier, caballero. Later, the culture of coach and carriage because as complex as the car culture would. The other side of the horse’s history is how long the horse lasted. In the military, for instance: behind the tanks at the spearhead of Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, considered the model of mechanized modern warfare in 1940, were still thousands of horses, better suited to mud, pulling artillery, supplies, and the like. The show at the Museum of Natural history includes a World War I horse’s gas mask.. The last U.S. cavalry charge took place in 1942 and Claes Oldenburg left a wonderful memorial to the last cavalry horse, named Louie in the form of an oversized horseshoe, in Marfa, Texas. Charles Willeford’s memoir Something About a Soldier captures the last years of the horse corps, at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Rail travel replaced the long distance coach, but carriages and coaches in town could also be deadly. (Before Lincoln’s assassins targeted Secretary of State William Seward, he nearly died in a carriage wreck.) Carriages were extremely dangerous. According to historian Paul Johnson, Charles Dickens recounted how common it was for coaches to turn over. Even gentlemen customers on stage coach journeys expected to have to righten an upset coach at least once on a journey. Today we speak of car culture, built around the automobile. There was also the horse culture, tied to social and economic symbolism. All of Jane Austen has been described as “about marrying a man with a coach.” Horses were replaced with electricity on omnibuses and trolleys in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1908, a century ago, when the automobile had begun to substitute in part for horses, a study in New York City suggested that it would cost $100 million to KEEP the horse. So, what is the cost of keeping the current automobile?