You might think that the first fatal car crash would be after Karl Benz built his famous Patent Motorwagen in 1886, but the first fatal car accident is generally recognized as the death of the scientist Mary Ward in 1869. Amazingly, there might be a fatal accident decades before that.
Mary Ward's death is, as I said, generally recognized as the first victim of a fatal car accident. I mean, Jalopnik even wrote about it. The King's County Chronicle documented her death the day after it happened. Basically, she was thrown out of the vehicle as it turned a sharp corner.
On yesterday the people of Parsonstown were much excited and grieved at a sad accident which occurred in the town. In the afternoon of yesterday the Hon. Captain Ward, his wife, the Hon. Mrs. Ward, The Hons. Clare and Charles Parsons, and Mr. Biggs the tutor to the young gentlemen, were on a steam carriage which has been built by Lord Rosse. The vehicle had steam up, and was going at an easy pace, when on turning the sharp corner at the church, unfortunately the Hon. Mrs. Ward was thrown from the seat and fearfully injured, causing her almost immediate death.
Why is this a car accident, since most people would say that the first car ever built was the Benz Patent Motorwagen, not constructed until 17 years after Mrs. Ward's untimely demise? Well, like it or not, the Benz wasn't really the first car, because steam carriages like the one Mrs. Ward was riding on had been around for decades prior. I can't find any images of the Ross steam carriage Ward was in, but here's a Rickett's steam carriage from 1860 to give you a sense that yes, there were cars back then, even if they looked weird and their engines ran on steam.
It's the image at the top of this article that really intrigues me, however. It shows John Scott Russell's steam carriage exploding, killing four passengers. And it all happened in 1834. That's just four years after the opening of the first twin-track intercity steam railway, by the way. Here's the picture again, zoomed in for a better view of what must have been sheer, unbridled terror.
In short, the thing exploded. Four people died and Russell had to close his business.
I know this is a lot for you, the car enthusiast presumably reading this, to process. Surely a car couldn't exist in 1834! A steam carriage isn't a car! What's this about a business closing?
Let me break this all down. John Scott Russell was one of the pioneers in steam vehicles in the United Kingdom, which was, as a nation, a pioneer in steam propulsion. It's easy for you to think about the Industrial Revolution, and then to think about trains. Well, before the UK went crazy for trains, they went crazy for steam carriages. They were like trains that ran on the road instead of on rails, crossed with a bus, crossed with a car. At the very least, these were 'horseless carriages' just like all early automobiles.
These steam carriages worked a lot like trains, running inter-city routes. John Scott Russell (pictured) was actually one of the first people to set up a steam carriage line. The 'Steam Carriage Company of Scotland' ran between Glasgow and Paisley, about a ten mile trip. The carriages left every hour and ran at about 15 mph.
Russell had six of his 26-seater coaches built in Edinburgh in that fateful year of 1834, according to Grace's Guide. Each coach had a two-cylinder engine with a total displacement of around 44.5 liters (they had a square bore-to-stroke of 12 inches). The Glasgow Story has a slightly more detailed description of the carriage, and this accompanying illustration of what the thing looked like.
Here's where things get interesting.
Many of the smaller roads being used at this time were privately maintained. The 'road trustees' that maintained them complained viciously about steam carriages, all over the UK, and specifically about Russell's line. They claimed that the heavy carriages were wearing the roads down. Often these road trustees would sabotage their own roads in an effort to damage steam carriages, doing things like putting logs in their way or filling the roads with deep gravel.
What's also interesting is that many of these road trustees had deals with horse carriage companies that now faced new competition from steam carriages. It's not clear that wear and tear on the roads is the only reason road trustees had to hate steam carriages — they were new competition for their horse carriage monopolies.
In fact, these road trustees (along with early railway owners) went on to lobby against steam carriages and get a punitive speed limit of 10 mph imposed on them, as A.J. Smith explains in his book Privatized Infrastructure: the role of government.
Okay, I'm getting sidetracked. The Glasgow Story claims that the 'accident' that hit Russell's steam carriage may have been sabotage.
The Glasgow-Paisley service departed hourly from its termini at George Square and Paisley's Tontine Hotel, but there were rumours that the road trustees became annoyed at damage done or imagined to be done by the machines to the road surface as they careered along. In July 1834 a carriage struck a heap of road metal that (it was rumoured) had been piled up intentionally in its path at Halfway House in Craigton.
So not only did the first 'car' accident happen over half a century before Karl Benz supposedly invented the car, it may have been caused by anti-car saboteurs!
So the next time someone tells you that Mercedes made the first car ever, feel free to correct them. And if ever you think your local government or Greenpeace chapter is giving cars a hard time, feel free to point to this article, too. And be thankful cars don't have giant, exploding steam boilers anymore.
All Photo Credits: Getty Images