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Horsepower Sure Beats Horses! (Part I: remembering what came before cars–and the failure of the electric vehicle)

The energy policy debate is well informed by history. So many ‘silver bullets’ being proffered by the Obama Brain Trust (‘smartest guys in the room’?) energy interventionists/transformationists are yesterday’s failures. As F. A. Hayek would put it, the Holdren-Chu approach to energy suffers from the ‘fatal conceit’ and cannot expect to be cost-effective in addressing the alleged problem.

Whither the Electric Vehicle

Take the electric vehicle versus the internal combustion engine. The market verdict of a century ago still holds–and for the same reasons. Thomas Edison was correct to pronounce the verdict to Henry Ford in 1896.

Edison himself labored to make batteries more economical for the transportation market, but the problem of weight and poor energy density could not be overcome.  A news splash in 1914 by Ford Motor Company of an “experimental” car, the  “Ford Electric” that would sell for $900 and have a range of 100 miles, based on Edison’s work, described as “Mr. Ford’s personal project” and “experimental” by Ford Motor Company—never got off the ground. Edison’s alkaline battery that penetrated the truck market was rejected by car makers because of its size and an incremental cost of between $200 and $600 per vehicle (1)

So it was back to 1896 for Ford and Edison despite the latter’s $1.5 million effort to commercialize batteries for the car. (2) 

Horse Pollution

Consider horse transportation and what supplanted it.

The quotations below should remind the reader of how big a step it was for transportation to become energized by affordable, plentiful, transportable, dense, reliable energy–and that was petroleum.

“In New York City alone at the turn of the century, horses deposited on the streets every day an estimated 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine, accounting for about two-thirds of the filth that littered the city’s streets. Excreta from horses in the form of dried dust irritated nasal passages and lungs, then became a syrupy mass to wade through and track into the home whenever it rained. New York insurance actuaries had established by the turn of the century that infections diseases, including typhoid fever, we much more frequently contracted by livery stable keepers and employees than by other occupational groups, and an appeal to the Brooklyn Board of Health to investigate resulted in the institution of new municipal regulations on stables, compelling more frequent removal excreta and disinfecting of premises. Medical authorities stated that tetanus was introduced into cities in horse fodder and that an important cause of diarrhea, a serious health problem among children at the time, was ‘street dust’ consisting in the main of germ-laden dried horse dung. The flies that bred on the ever present manure heaps carried more than thirty communicable diseases, and the unsightliness and stench of the stable meant that most urban owners of horses ‘boarded and baited’ them at public facilities at inconvenient distance from their residences. In addition, traffic was often clogged by the carcasses of overworked dray horses that dropped in their tracks during summer heat waves or had to be destroyed after stumbling on slippery pavements and breaking their legs. About 15,000 dead horses were removed from the streets of New York each year. . . . These conditions were characteristic in varying degree of all of our large and medium-sized cities.”

- James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 136.

“The first automobiles, whether gasoline-, steam-, or electric-powered, represented a dramatic environmental improvement over the horse-drawn technology that they replaced.

- David Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and The Burden of History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 6.

“Out on the streets and off the rails were horse carts of every shape and size. From light one-horse traps to fancy carriages to heavy teams hauling thousands of pounds of freight, the streets of New York were awash with horses, urine, manure, and flies. An extremely lucky or patient observer might have noticed a rare horseless carriage.”

- David Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and The Burden of History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000), p. 11.

“Horses, like the railroad, brought environmental problems of their own. It took about 2 hectares of land to feed a horse, as much as was needed by eight people. So in Australia, which in 1900 had one horse for every two people, much of the country’s grain land went to sustain horses. In 1920 a quarter of American farmland was planted to oats, the energy source of horse-based transport. Supplying inputs was only part of the horse problem. Horses deposited thousands of tons of dung on the streets, making cities pungent, fly-ridden, filthy, and diseased. A big city had to clear 10,000 to 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets every year.”

- J. R. McNeil, Something New Under the Sun (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 310.

“The motor vehicle offered an attractive alternative because it combined the flexibility of the horse with the speed of the locomotive or electric trolley, without the costly liability of a system of fixed rails and overhead wires. General adoption of the automobile promised to relieve taxpayers of the high cost of removing tons of excreta daily from city streets and to eliminate huge expenditures for endless miles of track, overhead wires, and networks of elevated platforms and/or tunnels, and with this graft and corruption that too often seemed to be associated with building urban mass transit systems. It was facilely assumed that the cost of improving city streets for antiseptic automobile traffic would be negligible. Further, it was anticipated that urban traffic congestion and parking problems would disappear, because automobiles were more flexible than streetcars running on fixed rails and took up only half the space of horse-drawn vehicles.”

- James Flink, The Automobile Age (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 138.

“Part of the automobile’s manifold appeal in 1910 was its modest emissions and the liberation it promised from the urban environmental problems associated with horses. By 1930, the urban horse was on the road to extinction.”

- J. R. McNeil, Something New Under the Sun (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), p. 310.

“Evidence of the horse was everywhere (in 19th century cities)—in the piles of manure that littered the streets attracting swarms of flies and creating stench … and in the numerous livery stables that gave off a mingled smell of horse urine and manure, harness oil and hay.

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 66.

“The city father of New York, faced with the threat of cholera in 1832, made special efforts to cleanse the cobblestone (streets), thereby divesting the city ‘of that foul aliment on which the pestilence delights to feed.’”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 67.

“The equine carcasses added fearsomely to the smells and flies already rising in clouds from stables and manure piles. In 1880 New York City removed 15,000 dead horses from its streets, and as late as 1912 Chicago carted away nearly 10,000 horse carcasses.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 68.

“Aside from the disagreeable esthetic effect created by horse manure, its chief impact upon public health seemed to come from the wind-blown manure particles that irritated respiratory organs; from the reservoir furnished by the manure for disease spores; and most critically, from the fact that horse dung provided a breeding ground for the fly, proven by medical science to be the carrier of thirty different diseases, many of them acute.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 106.

”(B)lamed on the horse were such familiar plagues as cholera, typhoid fever and intestinal diseases like dysentry and infant diarrhea.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 69.

“At the beginning of the twentieth century writers in popular and scientific periodicals were decrying the pollution of the public streets and demanding ‘the banishment of the horse from American cities.””

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 65.

”The presence of 120,000 horses in New York City wrote one authority in 1908 is ‘an economic burden, an affront to cleanliness and a terrible tax on human life.’ The solution agreed the critics was adoption of ‘the horseless carriage.’”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 65.

Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between 15 and 30 pounds of manure a day.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 65.

”Health officials in Rochester NY calculated in 1901 the 15,000 horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile 175 feet high covering an acre of ground, and breeding 16 billion flies, each one a potential spreader of germs.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 66.

”Writing in Appleton’s Magazine in 1908, Harold Bolce entitled his article ‘The Horse vs. Health.’ In a thoroughgoing assault he blamed most of the sanitary and economic problems of the modern (1908) city on the horse and essayed to calculate the savings if all horses were replaced by automobiles and motor trucks … he reach a total of approximately one hundred million dollars as the price that New York City paid for not banning the horse from its streets.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 69.

“[With the displacement of horse-drawn by motor vehicles in the 1920s] streets were cleaner, particle pollution resulting from ground-up manure and the diseases thereby produced were diminished, the number of flies was greatly reduced, goods were transported more cheaply and efficiently, traffic traveled at a faster rate, and the movement of people from crowded cities to suburbs was accelerate by the automobile. Events appeared to justify the spokesmen for the advantages of the motor vehicle over the horse.”

- Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution: The Old Gray Mare was not the Ecological Marvel in American Cities that Horse Lovers like to Believe,” American Heritage, October 1971, p. 69.

————————

(1) Mom, Gijs. The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004, pp. 255–56).

(2) Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003, p. 352.

10 comments

1 Henry C. Carey { 09.29.09 at 11:18 am }

Obviously, cars are better than horses, and possibly better than trains with overhead wires. But the modern train is to the car what the jet plane is to the helicopter. The helicopter is far more flexible — it can land anywhere, take off vertically and hover in place, making it the vehicle of choice for rescues — but it consumes far more fuel, is more dangerous to fly and has higher maintenance requirements. The jet plane is also much faster. Modern magnetic levitation trains can out-pace the modern automobile at nearly the same ratio, unless the automobile is a racing car that sacrifices everything for speed.

Thus, just as the helicopter is typically used for short flights and special missions, while jets are used for air freight and long-distance passenger flight, so we should use trains for travel between cities. A good train network will encourage the mega-cities to redistribute into more medium-size cities centered around rail stations, as the trains will make cities deep within the continent as accessible as the port cities; in fact, train transportation can be nearly as cheap as ocean transportation, yet much faster. With more people living in smaller cities, commute times and miles traveled in cars will drop.

2 antiplanner { 09.29.09 at 1:24 pm }

The notion that trains are far more energy efficient than cars is a nice fantasy. In fact, trains are so heavy — typically 3,000 to 5,000 pounds per passenger — that they are not very energy efficient. Autos in intercity traffic carry more people than autos in urban traffic, so the average car in intercity use is more energy efficient than Amtrak. Many urban rail lines are so poorly used that they use more energy and emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average SUV. When you add the energy cost of constructing rail, it is almost always a loser. (Yes, it costs energy to build highways, but they are so much more heavily used that the average cost per passenger mile is much lower than for trains.)

America dedicates its rail lines mostly to freight, which is very energy efficient. But we can’t pack 100 tons of passengers into a single railcar. Europe dedicates its rail lines to passenger, and so 75 percent of its freight goes by truck. Not a good trade off!

3 T. Caine { 09.30.09 at 5:08 pm }

antiplanner-
Our freight rail is extremely efficient with one ton carried an average of 436 miles per gallon as of 2007. But when it comes to passenger rail to cars, the numbers are not as skewed as you might think.

One gallon of gasoline contains 115,000 BTU or 121 MJ of energy. If we took a trip with an average of 35mpg (more than most cars on the road get) that would be roughly 3.46 MJ/mile. Double that for your SUV that gets 18mpg on the highway.

In 2005 Amtrak reported the energy use of 2,935 BTU per passenger mile, equal to 3.09 MJ/passenger mile. If we could displace more flights between cities, this number would only improve. This is without high speed rail, (TGV is under 1 MJ/passenger mile) or hybrid locomotives (not so far away.)

So unless we are all driving a Prius or carpooling, I do not think cars are blowing train travel out of the water.

4 Horsepower Sure Beats Horses! (Part II: transportation gains from the ‘master resource’) — MasterResource { 10.09.09 at 1:02 am }

[...] Part I of this two-part series described the primitive, messy, inefficient  prehistory of the mechanized transportation.  Today’s post provides quotations form different scholars that describe the great advances provided by carbon-based energy transportation. [...]

5 Mounted hunter { 10.30.09 at 6:00 pm }

Yea so what if NYC was full of horse manure, at least back then there were no automobile accidents, no traffic lights, pavement, noise and pollution from the death machines. What is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and Canada? Automobile collisions and accidents. Man was never meant to build cars and go over the 30 mph (the speed that most horses gallop at), but he ate the forbidden fruit and now family members die from CARS, THE DEATH MACHINES.

Horses beat cars every time in my book. Machines suck. i don’t understand how some people get satisfaction from tinkering with engines and mechanical parts that are to all extents, dead matter. Horses are alive with spirit and life. Some of us have never owned cars and never will because we don’t like AUTOMOBILE POLLUTION and all the expenses that come with owning them.

I prefer to keep horses in the country, but if I had a choice I would rather city streets be full of horse manure and horses rather than noisy, stinking fumigating automobiles polluting the air with smog and noise and horns honking, where you can’t even cross the street cause you might get smashed to death by a speeding car. There are no car accidents with horses, no insurance payments, plates to pay for, cops giving you tickets, maintenance expenses, filling up at the pump, etc.

Cars suck. Horses are living breathing animals that get us from point A to point B and run on grass. I never feed my horse oats or the like. He eats grass and lives out in the country open air all the time, not in a stall.

“Oh horse you are a wondrous thing,
No horns to honk, no bells to ring,
No license buying every year
With plates to screw on front and rear,
No spark to miss; no gears to strip,
You start yourself, no clutch to slip,
No gas bills mounting every day,
To steal the joy of life away.
Your inner tubes are all O.K.
And thank the Lord, they’ll stay that way!
Your spark plugs never miss or bust,
Your motor never makes us fuss,
Your frame is good for many a mile,
Your body never changes style.
Your wants are few and easily met,
Your something on the auto yet!”

~Verme Bell

6 Richard W. Fulmer { 10.31.09 at 5:27 pm }

Ah yes, the “good old days” when we enslaved animals and people to do our bidding.

7 Richard W. Fulmer { 10.31.09 at 6:14 pm }

Bit of a cheap shot, sorry. I’m sure that you treat your horse with love and kindness, but it’s easy to idealize the past through the softening haze of time. Not all horses and draft animals were treated as they should have been, and the advent of the gasoline engine ended much cruelty.

It’s also easy to dwell on the bad and ignore the good. Vehicles do more than belch smoke and kill people in wrecks. Fire engines and ambulences save lives by bringing people help far faster than could teams of horses. Farm tractors have helped increase farm productivity so much that hunger is no longer the norm. Automobiles, by ridding city streets of mountains of manure, streams of urine, dead horses, and the swarms of flies that went with them reduced disease and death.

So, ride your wondrous horse and be of good cheer.

8 Mounted Hunter { 11.10.09 at 10:09 am }

“the advent of the gasoline engine ended much cruelty. ”

The facts would seem to contradict that statement. The internal combustion engine was only possible with intense cruelty and slavery in the form of the industrial factory system. Prior to that, many people were self-employed and worked at their leisure. Traditional forced slavery of the ancients was just replaced with modern wage slavery.

Fire engines and ambulances rushing to the scene of car wrecks trying to rescue people killed or injured due to travelling at abnormal speeds using automobiles. Hmm…Makes a lot of sense sure…*cough* The cruelty inflicted by the internal combustion engine, whether caused directly or indirectly fars outweighs any supposed benefits .I reckon most firemen and ambulance workers would be out of a job without the ever-frequent car collisions. Some people also like silence and the sounds of nature not the blaring noise pollution of ambulances and fire trucks which can cause hearing loss and hearing problems.

9 Richard W. Fulmer { 11.14.09 at 1:58 pm }

Ambulances and fire trucks deal with emergencies other than traffic accidents. Houses do occasionally burn. And people die from riding accidents even today. I grew up in ranching country in southwestern New Mexico and can still remember a classmate’s younger brother being drug to death when his boot heal stuck in his stirrup. Perfection is not an option – either in transportation or in other aspects of life

Your view of life in the pre-industrial world is certainly idyllic. The reality was rather different. Throughout history most people have lived in disease-ridden squalor. Even kings and queens dwelt in conditions that we would consider appalling. Royalty, along with commoners, had to suffer tooth extractions without anesthesia, tainted water, and spoiled food. Because transportation was so bad, local famines were common even when bountiful harvests were being enjoyed as little as fifty miles away.

In early industrial England, people fled the countryside for the cities. Factory life was unpleasant to say the least, but it must have been less bad than other options judging by the way people voted with their feet. Dickens’ horror stories of orphans enslaved in sweatshops described conditions in government run institutions, not privately run businesses (see: http://www.thefreemanonline.org/columns/ideas-and-consequences/child-labor-and-the-british-industrial-revolution-2/).

The free market, by increasing productivity so that a single wage-earner could support an entire family, ended child labor. A big part of that productivity gain was based on improved transportation.

10 Bill Smith { 01.13.10 at 8:43 am }

Excellent words Mr Fulmer. Too few people appreciate the economical value of human mobility. Speaking from England, commuting back and forth to a big city for work was impossible 100 years ago and yet today most people are able to do exactly that. Otherwise, you were stuck with whatever opportunities existed in your little town or village.

This is notwithstanding the ability for people to visit or holiday in far reaches of their country just by using their motorcar. Sometimes I think these environmentalists and socialists want everyone to be poor and unable to travel. Its a bizarre and perverse desire where they claim they wish to end poverty yet they are doing everything they can to increase it!

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