When Cities Say No to New Transportation Technology

After the Civil War, steam-powered road vehicles seemed poised to fulfill the desire for “a cheap mechanical substitute for the horse,” as the New York Times said in 1868. (Horse droppings were becoming both a nuisance and a public health menace in growing U.S. cities.) Powered by steam engines fired with wood and later with coal, these Victorian-era conveyances came in a range of shapes and sizes, often no larger than a buggy. A small army of inventors tinkered with models that could travel over 20 miles per hour, with far more power than a horse. But the technology was a work-in-progress. In 1878, seven owners of steam vehicles registered for a race from Green Bay to Madison, Wisconsin, with the winner eligible for a $10,000 prize. Only two vehicles ultimately competed, and just one finished the race — in 33 hours, at an average speed of 6 mph.