Gilded Age Technical Innovations: The Automobile

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Photo Credit: Henry Ford’s first car, a Quadricycle Runabout, 1896, Midcoast Studios, Henry Ford Museum: The Henry Ford/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

We might see the late 20th Century onward as the era of phenomenal technical innovation (think: personal computer, wifi, and the internet), but it was really the Gilded Age that started it. As I mentioned in this blog post, the Gilded Age (roughly the last quarter of the 19th century) moved us into the modern era where the 20th (and 21st) centuries took over. Everything was getting a make-over then, including fashion, business, and politics. Technology was no exception.

Although cars didn’t really become popular until they became affordable (when Henry Ford released the Model T in 1908), they’re still probably one of the most earth-shattering of all the technical inventions created in the Gilded Age. When exactly the first car was manufactured is a matter of dispute, though people generally cite Carl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz fame) as being the first to come out with a three-wheeled automobile that ran on gasoline. The contraption was pretty modest, looking almost like a three-wheel bicycle with a fancy leather seat. The car was created in 1879 but didn’t get its first run until 1886. 

The idea behind the early automobile can be found really in the word itself (which didn’t come about until 1897). The car was all about the ability to go where you wanted in a vehicle that ran on its own (as opposed to having an animal pull it). This is one reason why early automobiles were first referred to as “horseless carriages”. They were thought of as carriages just like any other (and many early 19th century ones looked more like carriages and wagons than the cars we know today) except they didn’t need a horse to pull them.

Interestingly, early automobiles didn’t necessarily run on gasoline. Many ran on steam power (using a smilier principle as the steam engine, another new technological innovation of the 19th century) and some even ran on electricity (hello, hybrid). In fact, early electric cars were often marketed to women (yes, women did drive cars in the early 20th century, including author Edith Wharton and society etiquette queen, Emily Post) because they were elegant and easy to operate. 

One of my favorite films is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The movie is based on a 1918 book (but takes place earlier) and documents the downfall of a wealthy Midwestern family. The shift from carriages to automobiles figures prominently in the story. Eugene Morgan, an old beau of Amberson matriarch Isabella, is a car manufacturer at a time when they were considered, in the words of Isabella’s son, a “useless nuisance”. In the film, there is a discussion of the automobile at the dinner table one night. The discussion brings out some of the fears people had about cars then, such as the value of exclusive neighborhood properties going down once cars allowed people to travel longer distances. Interestingly, the biggest “nuisance” we would consider with cars today (accidents) isn’t even mentioned, probably because the speed limit in the early 20th century was less than 20 miles an hour outside city limits. The philosophical speech Morgan delivers about the automobile is that, like it or not, no one could stop this technological innovation from replacing the horse and buggy and, of course, this prediction proved right. By the 1910s, cars outnumbered horse-drawn carriages in many cities across America.

Photo Credit: Baker Electric Coupe 1908, taken by Lars-Göran Lindgren: Lglswe/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 3.0 

The Alderdices are, like the Ambersons, stuck in the past and are reluctant to embrace the new technologies that were already coming their way in the last decade of the 19th century. In Book 2, Jake and Vivian is introduced to a custom-made car belonging to Stevens called the Brata. The name is fictional but the car itself was inspired by a real electric car manufactured by the Baker Motor Vehicle Company in 1909. The car attracted me and fit Stevens’ character, like the kind of car he would really own, so I adopted it, although the series takes place some ten years earlier. Interestingly, Jay Leno, a classic car enthusiast, restored one of the Baker Electric 1909 automobiles and you can see him driving it here

Incidentally, cars also play a role in my upcoming historical cozy mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. The protagonist and amateur sleuth, Adele Gossling, an up-and-coming New Woman, symbolically and literally invades the backward-thinking town of Arrojo in Book 1 when she shows up in a Beaton Roundabout (another fictional name for an automobile but inspired by the Stearns Steam Surrey, manufactured by the Stearns Steam Carriage Company in Syracuse, New York in 1902). If you’re curious, you can find a photo of the car here

The Waxwood Series is about to get a complete makeover! All four books will be getting new covers and new blurbs in November. You can find out more about the series here

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

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