Who really invented the automobile?
Skulduggery at the crossroads
The author confesses in a foreword that this "detective story winds through a maze of clues over the span of a century." In reality, he tells the story of the battle between the railway and the steam carriage in the l830s and 1890s in Great Britain and the battle between the steam and petroleum automobiles in France and Germany in the l880s and 1890s. Actually, of course, steam had been outlawed in Germany, but the contributions of Benz and Daimler had been nurtured in France. Beasley accomplishes his mission most engagingly. He thinks most people would date the invention of the automobile "in the early years of the twentieth century," while in fact it was developed "to perfection" by 1829, only to be suppressed by the British government. I think most SAH members would come closer to the mark, although dividing into two camps, one of which would hesitate to label the 1830s steam coaches as automobiles. For them, the detailed examination of the feverish railway building contemporaneously with the exploitation of steam power on the highways might be of marginal interest, but the chapters which look into the emergence of the petroleum extractive industries, their tycoons, and their investments in the automobile industry should surprise them. The opening chapter is a vivid account of an important trial run from London to Bath of a mixed convoy of three horse-drawn vehicles and a steam tug. The lead was taken by a two-horse phaeton carrying William Hanning, Sir Charles Dance, Will Bulnois, and a man named Davis. Dance will be familiar, as his enterprise in steam is recorded by many historians, but Beasley has probed a little deeper. Hanning had committed £700 in 1827 toward a London-Exeter route, and with a Lord Heathfield had built a new road and set up a steam stagecoach operation on it. The other two were friends of Dance, prospective investors. Next was Gurney's steam car, towing an elegant carriage. Last was a post chaise carrying the factory manager, David Dady, Thomas Martin, an assistant engineer, and two post boys. It also carried a load of coke in case fuel was lacking at any way station. The steamer itself carried enough fuel and water for six to eight miles. Gurney had been building steam carriages for six years, and this model was quite reliable. Space does not permit even a skimpy outline of their journey, but the story is superbly spun by the author. Beasley tells how Goldsworthy Gurney had seen Trevithick's steam vehicle in operation in Cornwall as a child, had entered into correspondence with the Cornish inventor, how his fascination with the subject was so compelling that he quit his medical practice, and, in 1823 lectures on chemical science, he laid the groundwork for an analytical study of the properties of steam. A chapter is devoted to the formation of his company, its financing, and its construction of steamers. His first buyer, in 1825, was laying out a line from London to Liverpool. William Augustus Dobbin contracted for eight carriages for a route from London to Bristol, and Hanning's contract has been spoken of. A quirk in English law made wealthy men reluctant to invest in novel enterprises, as the idea of limited liability was unknown and if a venture failed the investor not only lost his investment but might also be liable to the full extent of his fortune. Ingenious ways of avoiding risk were proposed, most of which left Gurney as the one fully accountable. Another drawback lay in British patent law. Gurney's work was protected by several patents, but as further improvements developed while operating on public roads such changes were unprotected, and any keen observer could make use of them. In other words, research and development were a free-for-all. Despite these handicaps, the growing operation reached surprising proportions, which alarmed the railway interests and others who saw their livelihoods threatened: horse traders, fodder dealers, and so on. Another chapter explores the actual balance sheet of the enterprise, and its mounting losses. Was there a market? Beasley asks and answers the question, introducing facts which showed that services already in place were popular, with sufficient patronage to show a profit. Another of the endless succession of stories tells how Sir Henry Parnell, great uncle of the famous Irish secessionist, became interested in the steam carriage, and fathered a visionary project in two stages. He began with sponsoring a granite road from Holyhead to Birmingham and organized the Holyhead-Birmingham Steam Carriage Company to operate on it. The second stage involved the Anderson and Rogers Steam Carriage Company, which proposed to operate steam cars on the mail coach roads of Ireland. Moving on to the advent of the internal combustion engine car, the author looks at the emergence of the petroleum-extractive industries, with familiar tycoons John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the surprise information that the Nobels were an important presence. The story of the symbiosis between oil and automobiles is too complex for this review, but suffice it to say that only Deutsche de la Meurtha's connection to fuels is noted by the sporting press covering the rise of the French automobile industry. As a long-time student of that activity, I cannot but be impressed with the thoroughness of Beasley's research, and envious of some of the contacts he made in the course of his work, listed in his excellent bibliography The ardor with which oil men moved in on the automobile world is obvious, but the author has drawn a long bow when he feels they killed the steam car. The old American canard, that Standard Oil killed the Stanley, comes to mind. If one troubles to compare the consumption of gasoline by the steamer with that of the internal combustion car, the fable goes up in smoke: the steamer is the gas-guzzler. Only one major road race was won by a steamer, DeDion's 1898 victory, Marseilles-to-Nice. Steam held most mile and flying kilometer records for many years, but could not compete in the longer events. There are a few minor errors, and Beasley persists in giving Benz's first name the modern German spelling. Most have now accepted the fact that Benz used "Carl" in his autobiography, and even Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft does (most of the time). Only automobile enthusiasts whose interests begin after World War II will not find this an engrossing book It is excellent, and does not suffer from what appears to be a quaint loyalty to Marxist economics.
Charles W. Bishop for SAH Journal