Thursday, March 26, 2015

Uber of the Nineteenth Century

1890s street traffic, San Francisco Call, January 19, 1896. (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

A year and a half ago I wrote a short piece about one of San Francisco’s 19th Century cab companies. It told the tale of Boston-based entrepreneur Theodore Gurney, who brought his specially designed cab system to the city, where it struggled against unions and licensing regulations, and eventually went belly-up. The full story can be read on the wonderful site, FoundSF:

I’ve been pleased by the interest people have shown in this piece, for instance by a blogger writing on another Gurney company operating in Dallas in the same period. I plan another post here soon with an update on what I've learned about Gurney cabs since I wrote the earlier story.

Certainly, the Gurney Cab story is interesting in and of itself, as an insight into transportation politics of the late 19th Century. At the same time, I did write the piece to be a sort of “sleeper.” intending that readers would make their own connections between the Gurney story and the present round of “innovation” in the cab industry, even if I didn’t state these directly in the article itself.

This was vindicated in a recent Grist article by Heather Smith, part of an excellent three-story investigation of the city’s current cab variations. Smith’s “Secret History of the Taxi Wars” delves into the history of cab regulation in San Francisco. Breaking the mold for journalists these days, she actually pays attention to history, drawing also on Charles Rathbone’s Taxi Library site. She grasps the connection between Gurney and Uber, and uses the great quote from the February 18, 1892 San Francisco Call:
What at first promised to be a relief from the high prices of the regular hackman proved on trial to be a delusion and a snare. With that discovery the early patrons soon returned to their old drivers and left the Gurneys to practice their overcharges on unsuspecting strangers.

... which can be read as a pretty good description of New Year’s Eve, 2015...

Even better, she ends with the recognition that there is nothing “inevitable” (or even especially novel) about the current push to deregulate the cab industry. Countering the dominant discourses of technological determinism and free-market millenarianism currently being churned out of Silicon Valley, Smith writes:
Sometimes taxi drivers have been independent contractors; sometimes they have been salaried employees with benefits and retirement funds. There’s not much stopping us today from having a taxi system like San Francisco had in the 1890s. There’s not much stopping us from having a taxi system like San Francisco had (or at least Yellow Cab did) in the 1970s, when drivers had health and welfare benefits, and four weeks of paid vacation.
The technology is going to change all the time. It’s our collective willingness to make rules and follow through on them that is going to determine how that change plays out.

This insight has relevance far beyond the field of taxicabs and urban transportation. It is no less than one of the most important lessons history can offer – that we are not in the grip of inevitable forces, and the form which the present and future can take is up to us.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

From Coast to Coast – in an Auto-Mobile!

The first successful cross-country automobile trip, in 1903 (photo from Wikimedia Commons).

Tomorrow, Delphi Automotive, a car parts supplier, plans to launch the first coast-to-coast trial run of a driverless car. In an apparent nod to history, the trip will begin in San Francisco and end in New York City, just like the first successful cross-country automobile trip over a century ago, in 1903.

Mind you, the trips won’t be quite the same. But there are many interesting parallels.

The 1903 journey started off with a story straight out of Around the World in 80 Days. Society men gathered in San Francisco’s elite University Club were debating, most likely in a haze of cigar smoke, just how long of a trip could be made in the new-fangled “horseless carriages.” A young doctor, with the dashing name of Horatio Nelson Jackson, leaped up and vowed that an automobile could be driven from one coast to the other, and that, furthermore, he would prove it by making the trip himself.

There were just one or two problems. Horatio did not own a car, and didn’t even really know how to drive one.

When Delphi’s “driverless” car starts its trip tomorrow, it will need a team of human minders to make sure it actually finishes in one piece. Likewise, young Dr. Horatio also needed a human minder, and for this he hired Sewell Crocker.

Sewell Crocker was, if anything, an even more fascinating character than Horatio Jackson. Sewell was a professional chauffeur – which meant, in those days, that not only did he know how to operate a motor car, he also knew how to fix one when it inevitably broke down. Smart automobilists never went anywhere without at least one competent chauffeur in the vehicle. (Delphi’s car will travel with a team of six engineers).

Sewell had gotten into this line of work as a cycling enthusiast back in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. Although today we think of “bicycles” and “cars” as two distinct, even antagonistic technologies, in those days they were seen as aspects of the same phenomenon, loosely termed “horseless carriages,” “auto-mobiles,” “moto-cycles,” and so on. From Sewell’s perspective it was probably not a big transition to go from bicycle racer to chauffeur-mechanic for the new, gasoline-powered form of horseless travel machine.

Horatio and Sewell made their trip in just over two months, leaving San Francisco on May 23rd, 1903, and arriving in New York City on July 26th. Their automobile, a Winton Touring Car named “Vermont,” broke down innumerable times. Along the way, they picked up an adorable bulldog companion named Bud. Amazingly, there has never been a Disney movie based on the adventure (though there is a Ken Burns documentary, of course).

Delphi expects their vehicle to make the trip in 8 days, driving only in daylight hours for best visibility. Among the advantages over 1903 are not just improved automotive design and reliability, but a complete, nation-wide highway system. Horatio and Sewell (and Bud) made their trip on dirt roads when they were lucky; the Vermont also had to clamber over rock and wade through mud. It’s a fair bet that Delphi’s souped up Audi SQ5 – dependent, as today’s “autonomous” vehicles are, not only on built-in sensors but a pre-built and predictable infrastructure of modern streets and highways – could never have made the trip under 1903 conditions, with or without a team of engineers.

(Though a lucky bulldog mascot might help.)

There are a few more links to be seen between the 1903 trip and the one starting tomorrow. Assuming Delphi’s trip goes well, we can assume a media campaign is waiting in the wings to trumpet the success far and wide. Audi commercials, in particular, will be sure to remind us what kind of car made the journey. Horatio and Sewell started off without much fanfare, but (like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza?) became celebrities when they were still half-way through their adventure. The Winton Motor Carriage Company, in particular, was quite happy to feature Horatio and Sewell (and especially Bud) in their own advertisements, even though their product had been chosen for little more reason than because Sewell had driven one before.

One last link: The Winton Motor Carriage Company, manufacturers of the Vermont, was later absorbed into General Motors, of which Delphi Automotive is a former subsidiary.

Winton Touring Car advertisement, San Francisco Call, August 5, 1903.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Big Tom's Antique Hack Yarns

Cabdrivers have long been story tellers, though it wasn't until some time in the 20th Century that anyone got the idea that they should write about their work, or that anyone would want to read stories written by a cabdriver, about cabdriving.
The 19th Century, though, has plenty of examples of journalists and fiction writers passing on stories told to them by cabdrivers. Below are two stories collected on a slow news day in 1886 by a reporter for San Francisco's Daily Alta California. The tales told by "Big Tom," though not necessarily untrue, each contain a hoary cab-story motif which you might even hear from storytelling drivers today.
Note: "Jehu," after the Biblical character who "drove furiously," was a common 19th Century term for a cabdriver.


A City Jehu Relates Some Thrilling Experiences. 


How It was Saved from a Possible Sad Life—A Stranger’s Pity and Subsequent Rewards—Luck that Brought Happiness. 

“Yes,” said the hack-driver, “our business is a peculiar one and we see a good many things about which it is to our pecuniary advantage to say nothing. In fact the man who owns and drives a hack must, if he desires to secure business and gather coin, hear nothing, see nothing, and say nothing. Yes, I’ve been in the business a long time, for over twenty-five years. I drove a hack in New York for fifteen years, and came out to this coast ten years ago.”

“You must have witnessed some queer things in your time,” remarked the reporter. “and met with strange experiences. Can’t you tell me a story or two?” 

“Well, yes; but mind you I’m not goin’ to give names, because that would be a breach of confidence, and just as soon as people find out that a hack-driver gives things away, why its good-bye John for him. One cold Winter’s night a good many years ago, I was standing with my hack in front of the New York Hotel on Broadway in that city. I had a nice string of customers, most of whom were newspaper men and actors. They all knew ‘Big Tom,’ as they called me, and they had formed a good opinion of me because I was always on hand for business, drove as pretty a team as ever were hooked up, and had one of the neatest hacks in town. I was blind, deaf, and dumb, too—you understand—and that went a long way towards securing me the confidence of all who patronized me. The New York Hotel, at the time of which I speak, was a great resort for big writers on the daily papers, for leading members of the theatrical profession, and for Southerners.


“The night I just referred to, or rather morning, for it was nearly three when the circumstances I am about to relate occurred, was bitter cold. The sky was studded with stars that snapped as if they felt the influence of the frosty air, too. My hack stood just opposite the entrance to the hotel. My team was well blanketed, and I was walking up and down the sidewalk to keep my blood in circulation. When the town clocks struck three, a gentleman came out of the hotel and hailed me. When I came up he said, in a half whisper, ‘Tom, you’ve been a square man always, but this morning there’s a little business on hand which you must look at in the light of a duty you owe to an old friend. We’re going to put a dead man in your hack, but upon my word as a gentleman he died only a few moments ago, a natural death. It won’t do to have the world know the circumstances under which he died. We want to cheat the papers of this bit of intelligence, and we confide in you to help us out in doing so. The dead man’s name is ---,” and here he whispered in my ear. I started as if a thunderbolt had struck me. He was a great newspaper man and a big friend of mine. I had driven him only the morning before from the hotel. He used to stop there always after he left his down-town office, which was usually about midnight. He was one of the cleverest gentlemen I ever met, and he always slipped me big fares. Well, I tell you I was sorry, and I told the party who had spoken to me that I’d do anything in the world to help him out. He went back into the hotel, and in about ten minutes three gentlemen came out supporting what appeared to be a sick man. They put him in the hack and I was ordered to drive to the residence of the man whom I knew was dead. The three persons who got inside with him were all big newspaper chaps. 


“When I arrived at the house, the gentleman carefully carried that body up the great stone stoop and inside the storm door in front of the entrance.I had been instructed to drive down around the next corner and wait. I did so. In about ten minutes one of the gentlemen came up and told me, ‘Tom, we’ve been playing a little deception, but it had to be done. To-day the afternoon papers will probably tell how the gentleman we just carried home was found dead at the front door of his residence, with the night key in the lock. They will pronounce it a case of heart disease. I tell you this to place you on your guard. You understand?’ I told him I did, and he then said that the others were to stay around the house, at a safe distance, to watch until daylight, when they would leave. He then ordered me to drive him to the hotel, which I did.” 

“Did you ever hear how he died, Tom?” 

“Yes, but there were only a very few people who knew about it. The gentleman became infatuated with a prominent actress, who died a few years ago. She was a remarkably brilliant woman and very beautiful. She had rooms at the New York Hotel. The gentleman got in the habit of stopping there on his way home and passing an hour or two with her. They usually had a light supper together. It was known that he had the heart disease, but outside of that he was a picture of health. Well, this night, after a prolonged chat with her, he arose to go, when he was suddenly seized with a fainting fit and dropped to the floor. The actress was startled, and dashed water in his face. But it did no good for 


She was overcome for an instant, but she rallied, and, taking in the situation at a glance, she pulled the bell, which brought a servant to her apartments. She quietly asked if a certain gentleman was below, and finding out that he was, she told the waiter to send him to her at once. In three minutes the gentleman stood in the actress’ room, gazing down upon the dead journalist. He was himself a newspaper man and a warm friend of the other. Well, he knew just what to do, and he it was who planned the idea of getting him to his own house in the way I have told you.” 

“I suppose you’ve run across some strange things in this city, too, haven’t you. Tom?” inquired the reporter. 

“Oh, lots of ‘em. This is a great town for sly things, and don’t you forget it. But the strangest thing I ever experienced here happened about three years after my arrival in this city. I used to stand on Market street, just opposite a popular all-night saloon, in front of which blazed a bright gas-lamp. About two o’clock, one morning, I stepped into the saloon to take a nip, and was gone possibly five minutes. The door of my hack stood open, as I used frequently to sit down on the sill to rest. When I came out of the place I went over to the hack and took my customary seat. Just as I did so, 


Inside of the coach. I thought it was a cat, and looked in to see. You can imagine my surprise when I found a bran [sic] new market-basket resting on one of the seats. I took it quickly out and lifted the cover. Down in a nest of soft, white pillows was a little baby, about a month or two old, and near it a nursing-bottle full of milk. It was handsomely dressed and had a little blue ribbon about its neck with a queer looking locket attached to it. There was a note pinned on the baby’s breast. I took the note and read it. It ran something like this: “A poor girl, honestly married but deserted, hopes that her baby will fall into good hands and be tenderly cared for. Whoever takes her will please preserve the locket.’ While I was reading the note, a fine looking gentleman came up and stopped. He saw the basket and the baby and I showed him the note. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked. ‘I’ll have to take it to the station house,’ I replied. ‘No, don’t do that,’ he said with a genuine sigh. ‘See here. If you’ll give me the baby I’ll see that it’s well cared for. Will you do it?’ I looked into his face and I saw something in it that told me he was a clever chap; so I said to him: ‘Well, you can have it,’ and I turned the basket over to him. He slipped a big coin in my hand and asked me to say nothing about what had happened, and I promised him that I wouldn’t. 

“Well, time passed, and I forgot all about the baby. One warm, sunshiny afternoon I was sitting in my hack door reading a paper. It was about four years after the circumstances happened which I have just told you about. I was reading along carelessly, when all of a sudden


All dressed out to kill, came up with some flowers in her hand and said: ‘Tom, don’t you want some flowers?’ The childish familiarity startled me, for I had never seen her before as I knew. ‘Why, yes,’ I said, ‘I like flowers and I thank you. But how did you know my name?’ ‘Oh, Papa told me.’ Then she went down in her little pocket and drew out a small purse, which she opened, and taking out a twenty-dollar gold piece handed it to me, saying: ‘Papa said I was to give you this in my name, which is Gracie.’ Just then I saw a gentleman with a lady on his arm, coming towards me. As he got close I recognized him as the man who took the baby years before. As he came up he said, ‘Tom, I’ve been away since the last time we met. This,’ putting his hand on the pretty child, ‘is the baby you were going to take to the police station that night, and this,’ pointing to the lady, a very handsome woman, ‘is her mother, and now my wife.’ 

“You can bet I was taken all aback. The gentleman explained how he found the woman who had left the baby in my hack and how he came afterwards to marry her. But that’s a story in itself which I’ll tell you some other time. I see little Gracie almost every fine day, and she always has some pretty little present for me. Yes, we hackmen meet with some strange things in our experience.”

From the Daily Alta California, January 9, 1886
Online at the California Digital Newspaper Collection