It’s almost reassuring to know that since the absolute earliest days of human motorized travel, there have been people writing about cars, and people calling bullshit on what’s written about cars. These exchanges should seem incredibly familiar to most of our readers even if they happened nearly 200 years ago. The characters are even the same: the company, touting a new model with a largely faked image of the car, and the clever and snarky commenters who spot the manufacturer’s bullshit and call it out.
We’ve certainly seen this before, but this example may be the very first ever. The company in question is Dr. Church’s Burmingham Steam Carriage Company, the car is their impossibly ornate steam coach, the bullshit is all over the delightful engraving of the coach driving with a full load of passengers, and the bullshit caller is the witty and observant Junius Redivivius.
The backstory is this: Dr.Church (who seems to have that title from a former job as a physician) had, along with a number of other investors, started a company to provided steam motorized bus service between London and Birmingham in 1832. The steam coach the company built was said to be able to take “a weight of fifteen tons fifteen miles an hour,” which are pretty lofty goals for the time. Not impossible, but certainly not easy to do given the conditions of both the technology and roads at the time.
Newspaper articles breathlessly touted the capabilities of the new steam carriage, even though very scant evidence was available that it actually ran at all. The only evidence of anything at all were these drawings, the one published in the Mechanic’s Magazine being the trigger for our proto-internet-forum-bullshit-caller’s screed.
I’m enclosing the entire letter here (it’s long, but worth it) but let’s just highlight some of the good bits here:
If that drawing be a correct representation of the vehicle constructed by Dr.Church, it is in itself conclusive evidence of his utter unfitness for the purpose of promoting steam locomotion... the thing looks like a car of Juggernaut, intended to be moved only under the influence of a strong internal excitement, rather than a vehicle intended for the purposes of everyday utility. It looks like a mountain, and a mountain scarcely to be moved. If there is one form of carriage more liable to overset than another, it is that of three wheels in a triangle...
All of this makes the mystery of the Reliant Robin even greater, since you’d think 130 years of evidence would be enough to dissuade companies from that tricycle design. But back to the smackdown. Check out this great assessment of the scale of the drawing:
In the drawing all the wheels are of one size, and “Impartial” states them to be eight feet in diameter. Thus, the heads of the outside passengers, who are so comfortably and leisurely seated on stick chairs or benches on the roof, must be some four-and-twenty feet from the roadway... I fear the pedestrians would outstrip them in speed... and ask, as they pass ‘what the temperature may be at that height?’
Zing! His more technical descriptions of the suspension setup are great as well:
... the huge splashing board, which stands on a pair of double elliptic springs, apparently of the size fitting for a child’s chaise; and a third single elliptic spring, carefully fixed at both ends, effectually to prevent its action.
At one point, our letter writer asks “how much money has been spent on this enormous erection?” but I think that’s more funny to our modern filthy minds than it was back then.
The thing is, our intrepid letter-writer was absolutely right; Church’s lumbering steam-beast did not, in fact, run as planned, and later reports suggest it only made one trial run, in 1835, for three miles before becoming damaged while making a turn. For all its mass and bulk, it was far too fragile for conditions of the time, and certainly for the lavish claims its owners were making about it tearing down gravel roads with a full complement of heavy-ass passengers.
Sure, our cars work incredibly well now, and our technology would be unfathomable to the people of 1830s, but I can’t help but feel that, fundamentally, the readers of Mechanic’s Magazine and our current crop of Jalops really aren’t that different at all.
Tech note: We’re testing out a new feature called text annotation on this post. Text annotation allows you to discuss a specific paragraph or section. The feature is in beta and we’re still ironing out some bugs and the general functionality. Let us know what you think!