Last summer, I was a fellow at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, a part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. While I was there, I studied automotive risks—mostly focused on safety—from the period of 1900 to 1940. I was lucky to have the chance to explore the Smithsonian's off-site collection of antique cars during my stay. The collection sits in an anonymous looking warehouse in suburban Maryland, and it houses everything from an original 1893 Duryea Brothers horseless carriage to a 1948 Tucker Sedan, from one of Mario Andretti's race cars to one of General Motors' infamous EV-1 electric cars (of Who Killed the Electric Car? fame).
I was particularly examining the evolution of safety technologies on early automobiles, and I mean safety technologies in the most basic sense, not airbags and crash avoidance systems, but headlights, brakes, mirrors, and other features that we might not even consider to be safety features any longer. They have become part of the basic notion of what a car is.
Every once in a while, when doing this kind of research, you uncover some long forgotten hazard, something that may have worried people in earlier times but that would never occur to us today. While I was tracking the evolution of headlights—from gas to acetylene, from acetylene to electric—in the Smithsonian's antique car collection, I came across a 1901 Pierce Motorette.
I had been thinking about what it must have been like walking around an early motorcar at night and striking matches to light its gas headlamps. One book estimates that drivers could have safely gone no more then 10 miles per hour with gas headlamps without "overrunning" the illumination, that is, colliding with something because you could not see far enough ahead. Then, electric headlamps, which were introduced in the 1910s, created terrible glare, blinding oncoming drivers and pedestrians alike, and government officials and engineers worked furiously in the late 1910s and 1920s to create regulations and technical standards that would eliminate this glare. In other words, headlights were associated with all sorts of problems, but when I inspected the Motorette I saw evidence of a risk that I had not previously considered.
The Pierce Motorette was equipped with Neverout brand insulated kerosene safety lamps. In this case, the "safety" in the safety lamps referred to Neverout's patented system that was supposed to keep the lamps from exploding or catching ablaze. If you were driving down a bumpy, unpaved dirt road in the pitch black night in 1901 or 1902, having your car's lamp turn into a fireball could be a real problem. Now, who knows how common lamp fires were? The interesting thing is that Neverout marketed safety, and the company's leaders at least thought they could play on worries about fires.
Too often, when we think of early automotive risk, we proceed by way of imagination and foist received ideas onto the people of the past. That is, we fall into anachronism. It is only through careful historical reconstruction, using all kinds of evidence, including artifacts, that we can begin to understand the many risks about which people worried. And as I argue in Taming the American Idol , it is only through reconstructing these risks that we can begin to understand how people sought to reduce the risks, either through the market or through regulation.