Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Interlude)

Mike Goes To The Fair

The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was the greatest event of 1876. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

(Read Part Fourteen: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston)

In 1876, Mike Brannigan decided to go to the fair. And not just any fair: the biggest, grandest fair in the world!

Which was, of course, The International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the United States.

"Mommy, look!" Fairgoers enjoy the novelty of popcorn balls at the Centennial Exhibition. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Centennial Exhibition was a massive event, drawing in over ten million visitors within its six months of existence. People streamed into Philadelphia from across the US and beyond, to gawk at the latest technological marvels (such as the first working public exhibition of Edison’s telephone), a monorail, and exotic specimens of humanity. Some of today’s stereotypically all-American fare, such as popcorn balls, and root beer, were made popular at the Centennial.

Mike Brannigan, however, did not go to Philadelphia to sight-see, or to snack on popcorn. He went to make money.

Hacks line up outside a Philadelphia Hotel in 1876. (Detail of photo at the Free Library of Philadelphia)

All those people crammed into one city, trying to get around would need transportation—and Mike was just one of reportedly thousands of hack and carriage drivers who swarmed in from all over the country to provide that service, much the way Uber and Lyft drivers today travel long distances to work peak events in the hope of a payout big enough to make it all worthwhile.

And just like an Uber driver, Mike was no doubt looking for the chance to extract a little, shall we say, “surge pricing,” out of his passengers... He must have been as happy as... well, as a rat at a fair...

A cab with the Fare Controller and Indicator installed (behind the driver). (New York Daily Graphic, 1876).

It was during the Centennial Exhibition that the first attempt in the US at a taximeter-like device—the “Fare Controller and Indicator”—made its appearance, used by one of the cab companies servicing fairgoers. Like later taximeters, the fare controller was designed to keep a certain kind of cabdriver from overcharging passengers. Sadly, there is no record of Mike’s thoughts about this invention.

(For more about the Fare Controller and the Centennial Exhibition, see "How Ludwig van Beethoven Invented the Taximeter")

Hotels were full and places to stay were scarce during the Centennial (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Mike—for once in his life—doesn’t show up in the police reports or the papers in Philadelphia during his stay there; but many other vagrant drivers, including some from Texas, do. It appears that these drivers, not surprisingly, tended to overlook the city’s cab regulations concerning licensing and rates of fare. Also, drivers are reported to have slept in their vehicles at night, perhaps because beds in the overcrowded city were both scarce and expensive.

The Precariat, servicing party-goers since 1876! An Uber driver prepares to sleep in his car (Bloomberg)

And then, in the middle of the summer, a record heat wave struck the city. Attendance dropped; business became difficult. Perhaps Mike, desperate for money, worked himself harder than usual. On July 23, 1876, the Galveston Daily News reported the gossip on the street:
It was reported in hack circles yesterday that Mike Brannagan died of sunstroke in Philadelphia a day or two ago, the news having come by telegraph.

Since Brannigan just might have known Mark Twain back in San Francisco (why not?), it should be only fair that he get to deliver the punchline (which Twain never quite did):
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!”

And if you, dear reader of this series, had been hoping against hope, that yes! Mike Brannigan had actually met the fate he deserved!—I am sorry. THE Mike Brannigan—who had already avoided death by hanging, firing squad, getting shot point-blank, and being torn apart by angry mobs (on two separate occasions)—could never meet his end in such a pathetic, footnote-like manner. Sunstroke? Think again.

Mike was fine, although very little of his experience at the fair is recorded. For instance: did his wife, of only two years, accompany him to Philadelphia, or remain in Galveston? There is no evidence either way. But my guess is that she did go. She had relatives in New York City, who she liked to visit. And also, a man like Mike Brannigan needs a close watch. I bet Mary went along to keep him in line, and this may well be why he never shows up in the papers for the usual infractions.

Uncle Sam's carved head adorns this souvenir cane from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was sold at an auction in 2013.

We have only one more, slightly puzzling, detail regarding Mike’s experiences in Philadelphia: In September he sent a package of souvenir canes back to Galveston. The letter he sent to a friend, detailing how the canes were to be distributed, was published in the Daily News on October 5, 1876:

Centennial Mementoes. 
The following missive from Mike Brannagan, who went on to Philadelphia to make a raise with his vehicles among the Centennialites, was received yesterday by Pat. Tiernan, and created some amusement: 
September 22, 1876. 
Friend Pat—You will receive a package of canes. Please deliver them as they are marked. You can tell Dick Nagle there is a friend of his—a clerk—at the Transcontinental. Time is getting short. We will all leave here the day after the Centennial. One hundred and thirty thousand visitors at the grounds to-day. Deliver as marked, and oblige your friend. 
Col. Mike Branagan. 
The canes referred to present a curious variety, from the fancy tassel stick to the huge hickery. The following are the favored few: John Westerlage, Chief of Police Atkins, Grey Nichols, Col. Wood, Thos. Tydings, Dick Nagle, Frank D. Harrar, Barney Tiernan, Pat Tiernan, Thos. Ochiltree.

There are two curious things about this letter. First, this is the first recorded instance in which Mike refers to himself as “Colonel.” More on that later.

Second, there was some massive joke here, which made it funny enough to be reprinted in the paper, but which is now not easy to pick out. On the surface, Mike is sending some souvenir canes to his friends—each of whom gets a specific style of cane, ranging from a “fancy tassel stick” to a “huge hickory.” The recipients, though, are almost all prominent citizens of Galveston—the Police Chief and the Sheriff, two policemen, a capitalist, and several politicians. Mike did have a long-established pattern of cozying up to powerful people in order to get political protection. But were these folks really Mike’s cronies? Was he teasing a bunch of friends, or taunting his enemies?

The Centennial Exhibition came to an end on November 10, 1876, and the next day Mike decamped from Philadelphia, along with countless others, and returned to Galveston.

A few years later Mike and his wife moved to El Paso.

Next time (for real): The Best Cabdriver in El Paso

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Digital Mediation, Soft Cabs, and Spatial Labour

The new special issue of Digital Culture & Society on "Mobile Digital Practices" has been released, featuring my article on "Digital Mediation, Soft Cabs, and Spatial Labour:"

Click here for the free repository version of the article.


Critics of digitally mediated labour platforms (often called the “sharing” or “gig economy”) have focused on the character and extent of the control exerted by these platforms over both workers and customers, and in particular on the precarizing impact on the workers on whose labor the services depend. Less attention has been paid to the specifically spatial character of the forms of work targeted by mobile digital platforms. The production and maintenance of urban social space has always been dependent, to a large degree, on work that involves the crossing of spatial boundaries - particularly between public and private spaces, but also crossing spaces segregated by class, race, and gender. Delivery workers, cabdrivers, day labourers, home care providers, and similar boundary-crossers all perform spatial work: the work of moving between and connecting spaces physically, experientially, and through representation. Spatial work contributes to the production and reproduction of social space; it is also productive of three specific, though interrelated, products: physical movement from one place to another; the experience of this movement; and the articulation of these places, experiences, and movements with visions of society and of the social. Significantly, it is precisely such spatial work, and its products, which mobile digital platforms seek most urgently to transform. Drawing on several recent studies of “ridesharing” (or soft cab) labour platforms, I interrogate the impact of digital mediation on the actual practices involved in spatial work. I argue that the roll-out of digital labour platforms needs to be understood in terms of a struggle over the production of social space.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Ludwig van Beethoven Invented the Taximeter (a true story, with some caveats)

In 1876, a new technology for managing interactions between drivers and passengers promised to transform the cab-riding experience.

People converging on the Centennial Exhibition via multiple means of transportation (Library of Congress).

The year was 1876; the place, Philadelphia; and the event was the grand Centennial International Exhibition, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States.

The Centennial was a massive event, drawing over ten million visitors, who strolled the grounds viewing such wonders as the first public demonstration of the telephone, and a massive arm and torch which would later be part of the Statue of Liberty, while enjoying such novel (but afterwards well-known) treats as popcorn and non-alcoholic root beer.

Getting all these people to the exhibition gates was both a challenge and a business opportunity. Railroads, streetcars, and omnibuses moved passengers. Hack and cab proprietors came from as far away as Texas, looking to make money operating their vehicles during the Exhibition.

This caused a bit of concern for the city fathers. Cab regulation was still in its early days, and they had few ways to keep this flood of out-of-town vehicles from swamping their streets. The city council passed laws requiring cabs to be licensed, which most of the out-of-towners ignored; they also proposed that real Philadelphia carriage drivers be issued uniforms, so they could be distinguished from the horde of outsiders.

Opportunities for misunderstandings between drivers and passengers were rife. Before the existence of the taximeter, the fares for most trips were calculated by the mile, which was usually estimated based on the number of blocks that had been travelled. Visitors unfamiliar with the city did not always know the rates of fare or the distances between places, so they were liable to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous drivers.

Sometimes fares were reckoned by time, but this led to its own difficulties in an era when not everyone carried watches, and when they did, the watches did not always agree.

On top of this there was the issue of class conflict. It was primarily upper middle class visitors who could afford to ride in hired carriages, and they did so because they didn’t want to mingle with the hoi polloi in the public streetcars. But to ride in a hack meant to put themselves under the control of low-status, working class drivers, who were often immigrants to boot (at the time, mostly Irish). Class anxiety mixed with suspicion meant that passengers often accused drivers of cheating them over the fare, even when they were not, in fact, cheating.

Something needed to be done, both to exert more control over drivers, and to ensure their upper-class passengers that the system could be trusted.

To the rescue: the “Ingenious German,” Ludwig van Beethoven.

The great composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was unable to attend the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. (Wikipedia)  

Okay, so not that Ludwig van Beethoven. That famous composer, however, had a grandnephew, Ludwig Johann van Beethoven. The younger Ludwig was born in 1839, the son of Karl van Beethoven, the “old Ludwig Van’s” dissolute nephew. This part of the family tended to free-load off their more successful relatives, while also changing the “van” in their name to “von,” to give the impression that they were descended from nobility.

Marie and Ludwig Johann van Beethoven (The Beethoven Family Trees)

Music writer Alex Ross has described the younger Ludwig as an “energetic and determined character, though somewhat lacking in moral fibre. Posing as the “grandson” of Beethoven, he wormed his way into the court of Ludwig II of Bavaria, but had to flee Europe in 1871, due to charges of fraud and embezzlement. Arriving in the New World, Beethoven changed his name to Louis von Hoven. Although he later claimed that this was to avoid constantly being harassed by fans of his great ancestor, historians agree that the name change was meant to avoid creditors and possible prosecution, and to enable von Hoven and his family to start afresh in America.

Ludwig’s—I mean, Louis’s—wife Marie was an accomplished concert pianist, and her performances supported the young “von Hoven” family as they rambled from city to city in the US and Canada. Louis started working for railroad companies, presumably in some technical capacity, as he soon showed an interest in the use of technology to organize and control the flow of information, people, and goods. He developed an on-demand messenger service, the New York Commissionaire Company, which operated in New York and Chicago. He also invented a new check register. In 1876, Louis von Hoven was in Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition. He may have been involved in running a “rolling chair” company, renting wheelchairs to fair-goers.

Then came his greatest achievement: the invention of the taximeter.

Alright: so he didn’t invent the taximeter per se. The “taximeter” (a device which calculates cab fares using both distance and time) would not come into existence until 1891, and is attributed to German inventor F.W.G. Bruhn. What von Hoven did invent was an important, and very revealing, precursor to the taximeter, which he called the “Fare Controller and Indicator.”

It wasn’t the first proto-taximeter: as early as the 1840s there had been a “patent mile index” installed in some London cabs, and in Paris in the 1860s at least four different kinds of “compteur” had been tried, none of which proved satisfactory. Von Hoven’s invention, however, had some novel features.

Mechanical devices intended to rationalize driver-passenger relations often simply created new controversies (Punch).

Von Hoven’s fare controllers were installed in the carriages of the National Cab Company, which had formed that same year to provide service during the Exhibition. To ride in such a cab, you hailed one of its vehicles off the street, distinguished by a “little blue illuminated sign” on the front, reading “To Hire.” Upon stepping into the carriage, you saw these instructions posted on the wall:

Much like with later mechanical taximeters, the driver then pushed down the “To Hire” flag, engaging a mechanism which recorded the time duration of the trip in quarter-hour increments. This action also swung a clock in front of the passenger’s face, so that they could verify the time at which the trip began.

At the end of the trip, the driver restored the “To Hire” sign, thus stopping the trip recorder. As the passenger paid, the driver pushed another button, making a gong sound, for each quarter in payment; the result is that both the duration of the ride and the payment received were recorded.

As a contemporary newspaper put it, “what has all along been needed has been some way to manage the driver.” Now passengers could put their faith in a mechanical device instead of in their drivers. At the same time, in von Hoven’s words, “each passenger will thus become a sort of detective against the driver,” ensuring that all the money taken in by the driver during a shift would be reported to the owner of the vehicle.

A carriage with von Hoven's Fare Controller and Indicator installed; when the driver pushes down the "To Hire" sign behind him, a clock appears inside the carriage (New York Daily Graphic).

But von Hoven’s device had one more trick up its sleeve: it was also a transformer. While carrying a passenger, with the “To Hire” sign swung down out of view, not only did the vehicle no longer advertise itself as for hire, it no longer looked like a “for hire” vehicle at all:
By a special ordinance of the municipal government they are allowed the unusual privilege of concealing their license numbers when engaged. This, with tidy-looking drivers dressed in neat livery and well-groomed horses, takes away all the ordinary marks of a public vehicle and makes them as finely appointed turnouts as any private coup├ęs in town. (New York Herald)

This ability to transform from hired cab to (apparently) private vehicle was all-important for the class-conscious passengers of the day, who wanted nothing more than to be mistaken for members of the truly rich, who rode around in their own private carriages. This desire for social distinction is what gave rise to the historical division between taxicabs (with taximeters, prominent numbering, and often garish colors), and limousines and black car services. And who better than Louis von Hoven—himself a transformer, with his name changes and pretensions to nobility—to understand and cater to such class anxiety?

The end of the Exhibition, in November 1876, led to a dramatic curtailment of the transport business in Philadelphia, and with it the end of the National Cab Company. This also meant the end of von Hoven’s fare controllers and indicators in operation. An attempt to install them in a New York carriage company came to naught, and the device disappears from history.

The precise reason for the disappearance of the von Hoven fare controller is unclear. Perhaps, like many other early precursors to the taximeter, its physical mechanism was just no match for the continuous jolts and wear and tear of the cab trade. It is also possible that von Hoven was once again in financial trouble: by the end of 1876, both the National Cab Company and the New York Commissionaire Company had gone out of business, and the inventor and his family returned to Europe soon thereafter. In Paris in 1877, von Hoven filed a new patent for a compteur de voiture, with some improvements, which never appears to have been put into service. Von Hoven once again seems to have lived off gifts from wealthy friends and kin; once again “Ludwig van Beethoven,” he died in Brussels in 1913. With the deaths of his wife and son within a few years, the Beethoven surname came to an end.

Von Hoven’s proto-taximeter was not just a device for calculating cab fares: it was a technological means to intervene in person-to-person interaction at a site of social and class anxiety. As such, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the cab-reforming technology of today:

  • Much like von Hoven’s invention, the “soft meter” (like a taximeter, but on a smartphone) used by companies like Uber, Flywheel, and Lyft makes an appeal to the prestige of cutting-edge technology to serve as an arbiter between passenger and driver, even if today it’s all about algorithms and GPS, rather than mechanical gears and clockwork.
  • Through the infamous five-star rating system, Uber and Lyft enlist their passengers to be “detectives against the driver,” just like von Hoven imagined.
  • Just like von Hoven’s transformer-carriage, Uber and Lyft dispel the image of the taxicab by getting rid of its symbols, turning the cab into a “rideshare,” and semantically replacing the cabdriver with either a “private driver” or a “friend with a car” (it is for this reason that “soft cab” is the best name for these services).
  • And finally, just like in 1876, these technologies are about a lot more than simply calculating a fare for getting people from point A to point B: they are about enabling middle and upper class mobility through increased control over a working class, largely immigrant workforce.

On Louis von Hoven and his family:

  • Paul Nettle (1957) “Beethoven’s Grand-Nephew in America,” Music & Letters, 38:3, pp. 260-264.
  • Alex Ross (2014) “Beethoven’s Grand-nephew” The Rest is Noise,
  • Michael Lorenz (2016) “The Beethoven Family Graves in Vienna,” The Beethoven Journal 31:2.

Or click here for a detailed history of the taxanom/taxameter/taximeter in the late 19th Century: