“The Car Emancipated the Masses”

(p. 11) Ear-shredding noise, toxic air, interminable traffic jams, chaos and death — all the result of untrammeled population expansion. Is this a description of a contemporary urban nightmare? Not quite: We’re talking about 19th-century London, although the situation in Paris and other major cities wasn’t much better. And the cause of all this misery was … the horse.

As recounted by Bryan Appleyard in his compelling new book, “The Car,” by 1900 the 50,000 horses required to meet London’s transportation needs deposited 500 tons of excrement daily. Hooves and carriage wheels threw up curtains of fetid muck. Accidents caused by mechanical failures and spooked animals were often fatal to passengers, drivers and the horses themselves. New York City employed 130,000 horses and predictions were made that by 1930 that city’s streets would be piled three stories high with dung. Yet another dire prophecy fallen victim to the continuity fallacy — the belief that a current trend will endure forever.

Things change because when problems arise, people work at solving them, and sometimes they arrive at solutions. The answer to the psychosocial and physical degradation brought on by too many people employing too many horses in the burgeoning Industrial Age was, of course, the development of the motor vehicle. Specifically, one powered by the internal combustion engine.

. . .

For all the carping and finger-pointing leveled at traditional automobiles — much of which Appleyard acknowledges as valid — he is unabashed about his appreciation for the most important machine in human history. As he points out, “The car emancipated the masses far more effectively than any political ideology; that it did so at a cost should not obliterate the importance of that freedom.”

Well said. Vroom.

For the full review, see:

Jonathan Kellerman. “Auto Erotica.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, September 25, 2022): 11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Sept. 23, 2022, and has the title “How the Car Created the Modern World.”)

The book under review is:

Appleyard, Bryan. The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World. New York: Pegasus Books, 2022.

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