Today, the automobile in transition. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
February 1915: WW-I had begun 6 months ago in
Europe. Two years later, we'd join the slaughter, but now we look across
the ocean at other people's troubles. Life is good here in America.
Automobiles flow off the new assembly lines and America has the means
to buy them. Three back-to-back articles in Scribner's magazine
clearly show what's happening.
First, The Motor in Warfare. This article presents an amazing
parade of wholly new machines! Motorcycles, troop-carrying buses, armored
cars, traveling telegraph stations, cannon-hauling equipment, and embryonic
combat aeroplanes. The mood is very Gee-Whiz!
Barely mentioned is the new motor-driven ambulance -- now hauling away the maimed victims of all
this snazzy equipment.
The second article, Motoring in the High Sierras, follows a lone
touring car on a bold journey from Reno to Sacramento -- the same trip my
great grandfather had to make on foot, only 68 years earlier. Though it's
still a daunting trip, we now find a few amenities --
a shaky wooden bridge over a roaring
creek or a tunnel cut through the center of a Redwood tree.
And this lovely world seems quite devoid of any other traffic.
The third article is The Woman at the Wheel. Here the writer looks
at change from deep within the old world of class and privilege. Wealth is
assumed. The automobile, a man's plaything, is now being taken up by the
weaker sex. He writes:
The tire problem ... remains in an unsatisfactory
state ... With practice a woman can manage a small tire ... but if
even a medium-sized tire goes flat a woman must have masculine help
One figure caption says, "Suburban life is enhanced by the use of small cars
which easily connect the home and country club." And we struggle to grasp a
world where cars still serve recreation alone. That'd change of course; but
20 years later, my father still left our car in the garage when he went to work.
The only sensible way to go downtown in 1935 was on the electric trolley.
The writer mentions that a few fancier cars have automatic starters and no longer
have to be cranked. He wonders when gear shifting will be made easier and engine
settings simplified. Electric
cars solve many of these problems but without an infrastructure of charging
stations you can't tour in one. Electric cars would soon all but vanish as we
provided automatic starters, synchromesh gears, and a gas and service station system.
But something else would also happen: We would enact Women's suffrage. And
I have a feeling this writer, despite his antediluvian tone of voice, realizes
that a much larger social upheaval was afoot back in 1915. For he finishes with
a rather remarkable, even prophetic, observation. The present use of cars by
women, he acknowledges, is an, "augury of the time when the automobile's
liberating mission will be fulfilled."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The three articles are C. L. Freeston, The Motor in Warfare: Power and Speed
in the Great European Conflict; C. J. Beldon, Motoring in the High Sierras;
and H. L. Towle, The Woman at the Wheel. All are in Scribner's Monthly, An
Illustrated Magazine for the People, Vol. LVII, February, 1915, pp. 185-223.
(All illustrations from this source.)