Well That Didn’t Work: The 1899 Car With a Full-Size Wooden Horse Head Stuck to the Front BY ALEX DAVIES 02.10.15 | 8:30 PM | PERMALINK Share on Facebook67
courtesy US Patent office
The early years of the American auto industry looked a lot like Silicon Valley today. Instead of countless apps and startups aiming to fix problems that probably don’t exist, the entrepreneurs of the age were making all sorts of new kinds of cars, before the industry was pared down to just a few juggernauts.
That includes Uriah Smith of Battle Creek, Michigan, a Seventh-day Adventist preacher who also dabbled in engineering. He figured the biggest problem with cars was that they scared the bejeezus out of horses, with dangerous results.
This was a serious issue: Horses scare easily and run fast, which is a problem when people have tied them to heavy carts. (They also bite, kick, and liberally distribute manure.) In 1900, they killed 200 people in New York City, according to the University of California Transportation Center’s ACCESS magazine. In 2014, when the city’s population was four times larger, fewer than 300 people were killed in all traffic accidents.
So presumably, anything that could make horses less likely to freak out would have been welcome. And in 1899, Smith announced his vehicle, the Horsey Horseless. According to his patent, it was a “new and original design for a vehicle body, and it has for its object to provide a design of this character that shall be both useful and ornamental.” (If you’ve ever wondered how someone who spends his time in the pulpit would write a patent application, there’s your answer.)
More simply, it was a car with a big wooden horse head stuck on the front of it. It looked as if someone had grabbed the figurehead from the prow of a ship and plunked it on a car as a massively oversized hood ornament. Added bonus: The hollow equine bust doubled as a fuel tank.
The idea was straightforward: If a car looks like a horse, actual horses won’t be scared of it. And they won’t cause a ruckus. “The live horse would be thinking of another horse,” Smith said, “and before he could discover his error and see that he had been fooled, the strange carriage would have passed, and it would then be too late to grow frantic and fractious.” Problem solved.
The Horsey Horseless didn’t catch on. It’s not even clear if Smith ever produced or sold one. But we do know that had he convinced people to give him money for this thing, it wouldn’t have worked. “A horse would not be fooled,” says Lauren Fraser, a horse behavior consultant in British Columbia. “The animals deserve—but don’t always receive—a bit more credit than that for their intelligence.” They didn’t get it from Smith.
Plus, Smith missed the bigger point: Visual trickery wasn’t the way to go. “The biggest thing that horses use for recognition is smell,” says Dr. Carey Williams, an equine specialist at Rutgers University. It doesn’t matter how much mare urine you pour on the wooden sculpture, “it’s not gonna smell like a horse.” Especially since the vehicle will produce other scents—like gasoline, oil, and wood—that reveal it to be something else.
Yes, horses can spook easily. But they also have good memories, and stop freaking out once they’re used to a new thing. For today’s carriage horses in cities like New York, for example, “their first or second time might be a little scary because it’s all new,” Williams says. But after a few more trips, “they don’t even look at the cars anymore, cause they know they’re not gonna get hurt.” Ultimately, it’s that ability to learn—not the inability to distinguish a piece of wood from a fellow Equus ferus caballus—that made their cohabitation with the automobile possible.
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