Motoring’s history is a grand tour

LONG SHOOT… The super fast electric tzero was powered by camcorder batteries (Image: BLOOMBERG/GETTY)


Although the streets of Pompeii were well-planned and able to handle growing traffic, they weren’t designed for wagons or carts. The local authorities implemented a number of traffic control measures. These included detours for busy roads or junctions and an intricate system of one-way streets that alternated, similar to the ones found in Manhattan today. Multiple Roman archaeological sites suggest that similar traffic-control measures were also implemented in other cities.


The first traffic light was installed on London’s Westminster Bridge in 1868. It consisted of two sets of semaphore arms mounted on tall posts that could be lifted and lowered manually by police officers. The arms up signified that vehicles and horses needed to slow down to allow pedestrians to cross. While the arms were lower, they meant that people should be cautious. The arms were not visible at night so the police used colored gaslights. Red for “stop”, green for caution, the same colours that railway signals used. A gas leak occurred less than one month after installation. This caused the lamp to burst, injuring its operator. Soon after, the traffic light was taken out.


Bertha Benz, her teenage boys, and Carl, her husband’s prototype car designer, climbed in to a Bertha Benz automobile on an August morning 1888. Bertha took Carl 65 miles to Pforzheim without telling her husband what she was doing. On the way, she bought petrol from a pharmacy (this was at the time a cleaning product). It was necessary to push the car up hills. Bertha needed to remove a blockage in a fuel line using a hatpin and her garters to fix a leaky valve. After clearing the fuel line with a hatpin, Bertha drove back home and used her garters to plug the leaky valve.


Red is used to indicate danger or stop. This is commonly believed to be due to the fact that it is the color of blood. However, there was another explanation. A Flamborough Head lighthouse was built in 1806. The engineer had to change the lamp to distinguish it from a nearby lighthouse with white lights. After trying different types of colored glass, he found the transparentest and brightest glass. Red light was associated with warning. The first warning lamps to be used on trains and ships were red lamps.

Early electric cars like this were thought better for ‘lady drivers’ because they didn’t have gears (Image: BLOOMBERG/GETTY)


In the beginning, green lamps were used to indicate “proceed with care”, while white lamps indicated “all clear” and “go”. This was dangerous because lamps other than those used on railways (e.g. in homes) might be confused for “go” light. If the colored lens falls off of a red-green or green light it could incorrectly signify “go”. It could lead to serious accidents. In the 1890s, the colors green and white were changed to “go”. The original 1868 traffic light used green to indicate “proceed cautiously”, while the 1914 electric traffic lights used the word “go” to replace it.


Sometimes, the traffic signals indicating “Go” in Japan are markedly blue. Language, and not technology are the reasons. Japanese law requires that lamps be called “ao”, which refers to a broad range of colors and also includes shades such as blue and green in other languages.


Early “horseless carriages”, which were called carriages or horses, had an engine at the back. A lever (or tiller) was used to steer. Panhard & Levassor in France, a pioneering carmaker in 1890s, thought of putting an engine at the front. Alfred Vacheron (panhard owner) modified his car by adding a steering mechanism to the tiller. These ideas were quickly adopted.


Kerosene was the main component of crude oil in the 1870s. It was used extensively for lighting. The byproduct of crude oil, petrol, was almost considered worthless. The oil was often sold as a cleaning agent and solvent in very small amounts. Oil producers often dumped it onto the ground, allowing it to evaporate or flushing it into the rivers. It was once believed that hot coals could be thrown from steamboats on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which is a large oil-producing area. The water would then catch fire. Electric lighting decreased the demand for Kerosene and petrol increased in demand, which made it the main product of the oil industry by 1910.

WEEKLY SHOP: Without cars we would have to buy little and often (Image: BLOOMBERG/GETTY)


In 1908, the cheap, cheerful Ford Model T was launched. It changed the world. Millions of people got their first taste of owning a car. Modern drivers would be baffled by its controls. The car had three pedals like modern manual-transmission cars. One switched between high or low gear, and the other engaged in reverse. While the pedal to the right was for the brake, it also featured a middle pedal that activated the forward button. You could control the throttle using the lever on the steering wheel. The handbrake released the clutch.


Electric cars were first introduced to the public in the 20th century. They were designed for women because of their ability to drive and maintain petrol vehicles.

Women, on the other hand, had to accept greater complexity and less reliability in more manly, petrol-powered vehicles that offer superior range and performance. Henry Ford even bought an electric car for his wife. They may have been liked by men because of their short range (around 80 miles) so that their wives couldn’t travel too far.


Only the wealthy could buy cars in the beginning of motoring. They would also have to keep their horses at home. Around 1912 manufacturers began adding ignition keys to automobiles. This allowed owners to leave their vehicles unattended while they worked or at night, which was impossible with horses-drawn cars. After 1915, it became more common to park cars on city streets, something that was rare before 1910.


L. P. Draper, a driver in Los Angeles who was a licensed motorist, picked up a man at a tram station in July 1914 and drove him a short distance on his Ford Model T. He charged five cents for this ride. Others in LA began to offer rides in their private cars, and they were called jitneys after the slang term that refers to a five-cent coin. People who lost their jobs but had a vehicle were able to earn quick money by driving a jitney. In 1915 the idea was spread throughout America, giving millions their first taste of automobile travel. However, taxi and tram companies claimed that unregulated jitneys could be dangerous and they were banned by 1917.

PARK AND FRIED… Cars led to the creation of the fast food industry (Image: BLOOMBERG/GETTY)


Drive-ins began to appear along American roads in the 1920s. They were designed for busy customers who needed fast and easily identifiable logos. In-car dining and waitresses riding rollerskates were some of the innovations that resulted from fierce competition among rival chains. The biggest shift came in 1948, when McDonald’s brothers simplified the menu and reorganized their kitchen. This allowed them to cut costs while speeding up their service. The “Speedee Service System”, which was created by the McDonald’s brothers, is what gave rise to fast food.


There is a maximum amount you can take home when shopping by foot. A new type of store was created when America became car-dependent in the 1930s. It is forty times larger than a typical grocery store and sells products at lower prices. One customer could purchase weeks worth of toilet paper or flour in one transaction. Rents in urban areas were cheaper than those located in towns, which allowed for more space and parking.

A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next (out now) (Image: BLOOMBERG/GETTY)


Battery technology was the biggest flaw in electric cars throughout the 20th century. The lead-acid battery was heavy, but cheap and did not hold much energy.

The invention of lithium-ion battery technology in the 1990s changed everything. They were designed to run camcorders and laptops and are lighter than ever. Two electric-car enthusiast, Alan Cocconi, and Tom Gage built the AC Propulsion Zero in 2003. It was powered by 6800 Camcorder Batteries and can go from 0 to 60 mph in just four seconds. The AC Propulsion Zero has a range of 250 miles. The Tesla was born.

  • This excerpt was taken from A Brief History of Motion (Bloomsbury. PS20), Thursday. Express Bookshop can be reached at 020 3176 3832 for free delivery

Publiated at Tue 17 August 2021 12:23.50 +0000

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