Today, an incredible, and nearly-forgotten, race! The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1907 the automobile was a
handmade machine that traveled roads meant for
horses. Writer J. M. Fenster tells how, that year,
a Paris newspaper announced a great automobile race
from New York to Paris. No, I didn't say airplane,
I said automobile. Lindbergh's flight lay 20 years
in the future.
The Paris paper specified a route westward from New
York to San Francisco. Then a steamer link to
Valdez, Alaska. Drive across Alaska. Another
steamer over the Bering Strait. From there, the
cars would make the daunting trip across Asia and
Europe to Paris.
Six cars accepted the challenge -- one each from
Germany, Italy, and the United States. Three from
France. The 20,000-mile race began in Times Square
on February 11th, 1908. That was to get the cars
across Siberia before it melted into summer mud.
Each car carried three or four riders, piles of
gear, and 200 or so gallons of gasoline. Spare
parts and fuel would be brought along by railroad
trains or dogsleds, depending on where the cars
Crossing New York in the winter was the first test.
A French car gave up in a snow bank after only 44
miles. The American car, a Thomas Flyer, shoveled
ahead. The German team, led by a serious army
officer under scrutiny of the Kaiser himself, soon
lagged far behind. People at each whistle stop
celebrated as contestants arrived. Then they
charged outrageous prices for food and lodging.
The Americans got to Alaska first and found
conditions were impossible. After an exchange of
telegrams, officials changed the route. Now the
cars were to get from Seattle to Yokohama by ship,
across Japan, and then over to Vladivostok by sea.
The cars finally gathered at Vladivostok, waiting
to be restarted in the correct order. The Germans
had made part of the American crossing on a train.
As a penalty, they were to start 15 days after the
Americans. But they bolted ahead. Other teams
hesitated when they heard stories of bandits in
China. One dropped out.
The Americans finally reached Vladivostok and took
off after the Germans. They drove like men
possessed while the Germans drove railway beds in
violation of the rules. The Germans finally reached
Paris in July, after 165 days on the road. They
were hailed winners until the Americans arrived
four days later. Then the Americans were hailed as
the winners. No matter, there was no purse. The
race ended when the Italians reached Paris that
What are we to make of a race that averaged little
over a hundred miles a day? Well, before people
would invest in roads, they had to know those
rugged new machines could go anywhere.
When I first drove across America 46 years later, I
did it in four days. By then we had the roads that
would never have been built without theater like
this now-forgotten -- and seemingly impossible --
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds