From Horses to Horsepower

OpEd By Phil Patton – New York Times
June 2, 2008, 4:21 pm

A century ago the word horseless had many of the same overtones wireless does today: it seemed high tech and futuristic. And at the end of the 19th century, the idea that personal locomotives powered by new types of motors might replace the horse seemed improbable.
But one reason the horseless carriage appeared was because of the liabilities of the horse. I was recently reminded of this at the opening of “The Horse,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History, which runs through Jan. 4, 2009.

Horses filled the city streets with dirt. The museum cites James Flink’s definitive book “The Automobile Age”: “The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable.” And there were still 130,000 horses on the streets of New York in 1900. This meant about 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine were added to the streets every day.

Two-thirds of street waste was manure, euphemistically referred to as mud, which in the summer dried to a deadly windborne dust bearing bacteria and allergens. And 15,000 horses died on roads every year and had to be retrieved at city cost.

Eventually, the costs of the horse became insupportable, and what economists call the ‘externalities’ of the horse economy became intolerable. In 1908, when the automobile had begun to substitute for horses, a study in New York City suggested that it would cost $100 million to keep the horse.

These days, as we think about moving beyond the internal combustion engine toward cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, it might be useful to look at why and how we moved beyond the horse, which had served as transportation for centuries. Might the transition from horse to automobile (and the interplay of invention and the economics involved in it) offer a guide for us at the other end of the reign of the horseless carriage?


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