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American Government Special Collections Reference Desk


John Brisben Walker
The New York Times
February 4, 1900

Written for The New York Times
By John Brisben Walker.

Editor of The Cosmopolitan Magazine.

The public mind is in a state of more or less confusion regarding motor-carriage problems which, during the last year, have been presented in many forms.  During this coming year these various impressions will be differentiated; many that are very wild will be rejected, and the merits of the several systems more fully comprehended.

To one who has made a close study of these matters for some years, it seems as if we are almost on the verge of a revolution in our methods of living.  To be able to travel, with a fair regard for safety, along a smooth highway at a pace that rivals the speed of the railway accomodation train, if one is willing to take the risks or the police tolerate him, is now fully within the power of the newest types of automobile carriages.

In France sustained efforts covering many hundreds of miles have been made with French machines, which surpass even the average rate of the accomodation train—the cost often far below an average passenger rate of 2 cents a mile.

The automobiles now before the public may be classified under three heads:
First—Those constructed on the electric motor system.
Second—The French explosive gasoline engine.
Third—The steam motor.

Without going into the merits or demerits of these machines, it may be roughly stated that the electric motor carriage weighs from 1,400 to 3,500 pounds, has a limited are of operation ranging from twelve to twenty-five miles from its charging station, and costs from $1,200 to $3,500.

The French explosive motor weighs from 1,000 to 3,000 pounds; costs from $1,000 to $3,000, and has a practically unlimited area of operation, as the gasoline with which it is operated may be bought at any country drug store.

The steam motor weighs about 400 pounds for two persons, and 600 pounds for four persons, to which must be added 125 pounds for fuel and water.  It costs from $650 to $1,000, and, like the French explosive motor, has a practically unlimited field of operation.

The electric motor carriage is operated with less care upon the part of the driver than either of the other designs, and is especially well adapted for the smooth asphalt of the cities.  The cost of operating it, however, is very high in proportion to the cost of operating either the French explosive motor or the steam motor.

The French explosive motor, while greatly exceeding in weight that of the steam motor, has an equally high power of speed; the average machine is capable of even higher speed.

The question of speed, however, is one of small consequence to the average man.  Any one of the three varieties has a speed much in excess of what can be tolerated on any street or highway.

A steam motor recently left Irvington-on-the-Hudson and crossed King's Bridge on the Harlem River exactly two minutes behind the accomodation train time.  The cost of the journey was but one-sixth per passenger as compared with the cost of a single ticket for the same distance on the Hudson River Railway.  This is a fact that may bring important changes into methods of living.  It means that a man may live twenty-five miles out of the city, and if his home can be reached by a broad highway, like the Newton Boulevard leading out of Boston, he may reach his office by the most delightful means of locomotion within an hour if the authorities permit, or an hour and a half under proper regulation; and at a cost not to exceed 3 cents per passenger for the twenty miles.  The delights of such a journey on a pleasant day cannot easily be described.  Carriage driving is by no means a parallel, because the exhiliaration consequent upon the swifter and smoother motion is of a character not approached by motion behind a horse.

Nor is the revolutionary character of these means of locomotion confined to country roads alone.  It is not trespassing upon the grounds of the improbable to speculate that the large street vehicle, carrying its dozens or even hundreds of passengers, is destined to disappear from our streets and be supplanted by the smaller vehicle on rubber wheels, moving smoothly, noiselessly, and and swiftly from point to point.  A vehicle to seat eight persons can be built at a price not to exceed $1,200, which will fill every requisite of comfort and quick transit.  It will come up to the curb to receive its passengers.  It will move over the average distances now covered by the street car at a fare not to exceed 3 cents; while even at such a low fare, its driver would be able to earn very large wages for himself above the cost of operating, and equally large profit for the owner of the vehicle.

Who would be willing to take the risks now encountered in the crowded streets of a city in a car which, however comfortable compared with our former ideas of street cars, stops at each corner and jams first forward, then backward, all of its thirty or forty passengers, if he could find a vehicle of the character described ready to come to the curb and transport him smoothly on rubber-tired wheels?

The plea that the streets would be crowded by such an excess of vehicles is not tenable, as can be easily seen.  It would only be necessary to regulate the traffic in each street so that it would pass in but one direction.  This would enable a stream of vehicles to travel at an extremely rapid rate in the middle of the street, two other lines of carriages, on either side, at a lesser rate, leaving the curbs free for vehicles to take up and put down passengers.  A man moving south, desiring to enter a street where the line of traffic was toward the north, would simply go to the street beyond his destination, turn in, and follow the line of vehicles.

Nor, if I may be permitted to make a prophecy, is the revolution in military life to be less radical than that in coming city transportation.  It is possible to put in the field to-day an army on automobiles, each vehicle having not only the capacity for four, but an additional capacity for one, or even two, weeks' provisions, a rapid-fire one-pound gun, and oil fuel sufficient for covering two or three hundred miles.  To the sides of each military automobile shelter tents would be attached at night.  One comfort would be the heat given out by the boiler in the cold weather.  The machines would have a radius of action at least double or treble that of the best cavalry in the world.

I am aware that all this will sound extremely new to many readers, but I have been intent upon the practical details of the problem for a considerable period, while the preliminary studies have covered a number of years.  With each day and hour my conviction grows more positive as to the certainty of an outcome not very far removed from even the most radical of the predictions here hazarded.

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