If you fall down the Internet rabbit hole looking into autonomous cars, eventually you’ll arrive at Francis P. Houdina. Yeah, Houdina—not Houdini, but we’ll get to that a minute. Why’s Houdina relevant? He tested out a driverless car. In 1925.
As far as I can tell, it was the first “driverless” car test using a remote control setup (let me know below if I’m a dummy and missed something earlier). It went about as good as you’d expect. But 1925! Can you imagine? I’d probably have still been blown away by cars themselves, but cripe, one that moved on its own? Anyway, Houdina demonstrated how it worked in a very public display on the streets of New York City. The inventor reportedly refitted the tonneau of a 1926 Chandler with an antenna, and a second car trailed behind, using a remote control to maneuver it.
As the New York Times recounted it, in the deliciously purple journalistic prose of the 1920s, the demonstration was awesome. And a total mess.
The remote-controlled vehicle started its engine, blew its horn and rotated through its various gears, the Times reported, “as if a phantom hand were at the wheel.”
Like the autonomous vehicles of today, Houdina’s invention needed a helping hand in place, in case of an emergency. He “clung” to the running board of the car, the Times said, “ready to take the wheel in an emergency.” (Sound familiar?)
A crowd apparently started to gather at this point. That’s when things turned into a bit of a disaster, in a way you can vividly imagine such an experiment transpiring in the 1920s.
Here’s how the Times summarized it:
A loose housing around the shaft to the steering wheel in the radio car caused the uncertain course as the procession got underway. As John Alexander of teh Houdina Company, riding in the second car, applied the radio waves, the directing appartus attached to the shaft in the other automobile failed to grasp it properly.
As a result the radio car careened from left to right, down Broadway, around Columbus Circle, and south on Fifth Avenue, almost running down two trucks and a milk wagon, which took to the curbs for safety. At Forty-seventh Street Houdina lunged for the steering wheel but could not prevent the car from crashing into the fender of an automobile filled with camera men. It was at Forty-third Street that a crash into a fire engine was barely averted. The police advised Houdina to postpone his experiments but after the car had been driven up Broadway, it was once more operated by radio along Central Park drives.
The wonder of remote-controlled vehicles is captured in this illuminating read at The Atlantic that doesn’t mention Houdina, but sent me down a path that led to his story.
The Times ended its piece by saying a tour of “the continent” would be made once the technology is perfected, but there’s no indication to what extent one ever went, if at all. A 1932 story in a Virginia newspaper summarized a local demonstration of a remote-controlled car, calling it “one of the most amazing products of modern science.”
But yeah, Houdina. If you don’t know the name, you probably jumped right to Harry Houdini, as did most people, and that was a problem for the famed illusionist. Houdini hated this dude—so much so, he broke into the offices of Houdina Radio Control with his secretary and allegedly destroyed the place like a bunch of frat bros. It’s a decent story, too.
According to the Times, in July 1925, a summons was issued for Houdini’s arrest, after he allegedly broke into the office of the Houdina Company and accused it of “using his name unlawfully in the conduct of their business.” He was apparently irritated because the similarity in names led to some mail ending up at the wrong address. So, like a sane human being, or perhaps Gob Bluth a few decades later, he wigged out. From the Times:
He tore from a packing case a tag addressed “Houdini,” the complaint says, and when ordered to return it refused, seized a chair and broke an electric chandelier when they tried to prevent him from leaving the room.
What a guy. So a few days later, Houdina’s secretary, George Young, and a couple police officers entered a studio that Houdini was set to give some remarks on “spiritualistic manifestations,” as the Times puts it.
When Young went to leave, according to the Times, Houdini asked him for his home address. Young wasn’t about to give that up, so he responded with his business address: 1476 Broadway.
“Are you ashamed of your home address?” Houdini retorted, elevating a weird tiff about residencies.
The Times goes on:
The remark precipitated a heated argument in which Mr. Young stated that he was ashamed of Mr. Houdini’s actions in the office of the Houdina Company. Houdini defended himself by saying that he “would have been killed” if he had not used force to get out of the office.
Houdini was definitely summoned to court, but Young never showed up, so he was let off the hook.
I still want to hear more about Houdina’s invention, so, if you have a line on more pictures or background on it, drop a line below. I’d love to see more if it’s out there.