Transportation Revolutions Transposed

This will be our last musing on the patterns manifest in transportation revolutions of the past, at least for awhile.

Expressive versus Utilitarian Transportation

As is obvious from automobile advertisements, our favorite form of personal transport serves purposes other than merely moving us from point A to point B. Cars necessarily serve also to position their owners within the social context. Indeed, even if the car is ostensibly starkly utilitarian, as was the nineteen sixties Volkswagen or the Toyota Prius of this decade, it still makes a statement as it were. Volkswagen owners of the sixties, at least in the U.S., were rarely so impecunious that the Volkswagen, or its disreputable cousin, the Renault Dauphin, were the only choices in automotive transportation. Rather the Volkswagen made a contrarian assertion. I am not beguiled or bedazzled by push button driving, monster V8s, tail fins, masses of chrome, or vehicular weights in the several ton range. I find such display to be vulgar and will have none of it.

So what did expressive mean in terms of past revolutions?

Apart from the ceremonial barges and chariots of ancient royalty, the birth of pure expressionism in the transportation realm might be said to begin with the so called glass coach of the seventeenth and subsequent centuries. This was a large, ornate roofed vehicle equipped with prominent glass windows and pulled by a team of horses. Only the wealthy owned glass coaches, and confined as they were to cobblestone city streets, their utility was minimal. Rather, they announced the arrival of their owners at whatever fashionable spot was the immediate destination.

According to Lewis Mumford, the great historian of technology, coaches frequently ran down plebian pedestrians on the streets of European capitals and served as the ultimate expression of the disdain of the high born for the low born. It is interesting to note that when the nobility of France were led to the Guillotine their mode of transport was a creaking cart with solid wheel, the antitheses of the glass coach.

Simultaneously we witness the birth of recreational vehicles in Rembrandt's Holland which are expressive in a rather different way. The Dutch took up the sport of ice skating en masse in the seventeenth century and developed the first steel skates. They also invented the sailing yacht and a light buggy with sails for use on the beach, the ancestor of today's land sailor. Such wind wagons were capable of speeds in excess of thirty miles per hour and gave the forward looking Dutch the first taste of the modern vice of vehicular speed, perhaps the deadliest of all addictions.

Canal boats which also had their origins in early modern Holland were thoroughly utilitarian and non-expressive though, as were the English steam coaches discussed in an earlier installment. Not so with the riverine paddle wheel steamboat which found its fullest expression in America, and dates from the earliest years of the nineteenth century.

Such craft were frequently sumptuous and they became progressively larger and more ornate up until shortly after the Civil War. Floating works of architecture as much as vehicles, they hewed to the bizarre "steam boat gothic" style of carpentry which was somewhat analogous to the so-called Queen Anne style of domestic architecture, which itself had nothing to do with the monarch of that name and was thoroughly American. River steamers of the better sort had internal colonnades, often featuring iron or marble pillars and were paneled throughout with tropical hardwoods and furnished with French carpets and ornate furniture. The precise style of the interior decoration was subject to rapid change, and the relative splendor of the craft was a matter of competitive positioning since fashionable planters wished to travel on fashionable boats. Interestingly, the operating life of the posh paddle wheelers was generally extremely brief, less than five years. The category was in effect re-inventing itself more or less continually.

Steam boats are especially interesting because the evolution of form factor took place apart from the evolution of fashion. The final form with an internal colonnade, a three or four story superstructure, and a roof mounted pilot house evolved over period from approximately 1810 until 1830 and stabilized thereafter until the last boats were decommissioned at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the Mississippi the boats continued to accrue ever more elaborate furnishings until the early eighteen seventies when the railroads succeeded in largely undercutting the river traffic and made the steamboat lines increasingly unprofitable.

Paddle wheelers were used extensively outside the Mississippi as well. They plied the waters of the Hudson, the Missouri, and the Ohio Rivers, in fact, nearly all of the navigable rivers of the U.S. including the Colorado River of California where they lasted through the nineteen twenties. But except for Hudson river craft, few of the boats on the lesser waterways had much expressive value. Most were rather small with a single stern paddle wheel and were sparsely furnished and often ill-maintained craft.

Fashion statements were of course the norm in the American automobile industry as well, particularly at its apogee in the early post World War II period, and the aspirations of the buying public found in expression in a weird sort of moderne style that bore spiritual kinship to the googie style of commercial architecture of the same period. The auto industry encouraged middle class buyers to trade in and trade up every three years, and the buying impulse was driven by rapid changes in style—more rapid than at any time before or since.

Than, as was the case with the riverboats a hundred years prior and ocean liners much more recently, the centrality of fashion diminished. If the recent history of transportation is any indication, product cycles largely based on style are not sustainable for more than a few decades at the most. And we find this same timespan obtains even centuries in the past. In the seventeenth century, for example, a new kind of naval transport came into being, the first rate three decker ship of the line, the dominant combat vessel from approximately 1620 until 1840. Throughout the seventeenth century these ships were fashion statements and were encrusted with ever more elaborate wood carvings and gilding. Then in the eighteenth century, for reasons difficult to discern today, they ceased to be fashion statements, and their adornment was restricted to a figure head and a two tone paint job.

More on Form Factor

I mentioned form factor many times previously. Form factor refers to the outside form of a vehicle and particularly to those aspects of design that comprise the human/machine interface. Typically, when a new type of transport is emerging, the form factor is subject to experimentation and is fluid and changeable for many years, sometimes for decades. During the period of experimentation buyers are willing to abandon failed designs quickly and purchase the next iteration. The fundamentally bad economics of the process seem not to matter.

The Importance of Stakeholders

The success of almost any new form of transport seems to depend upon the number and significance of the economic stakeholders supporting the industry, particularly the manufacturing sector associated with the new technology. To whit, the railroad locomotive was the first industrial object that made extensive use of iron plates and structural beams. It drove the iron industry and later the steel industry and also greatly stimulated the already powerful coal industry. And, of course, it provided a means of transporting the flood of industrial products pouring out of English factories. Thus it had lots and lots of stakeholders. The steam coach, its principal rival, had none of these advantages. Nor did steamboats. Locally manufactured river steamboats were made mostly of wood and drew upon on heavy industry only for the engines and boilers. True, they stimulated the industry devoted to luxury interior furnishing, but that was a limited production crafts business, not a heavy industry, and, in any case, riverboats were only a small part of their business.

An even more salient example is provided by the airplane. Initially airplanes were flimsy constructions of wood, canvas, and wire and were entirely handmade. They entrained no other industry save for that involving internal combustion engines. Then came more modern designs in the nineteen twenties utilizing electronic instrumentation, riveted aluminum and special aircraft alloys, extensive use of purpose made glazing, and a whole range of aircraft components including special wheels, special actuators for retracting wheel assemblies, and so on. At that point airplanes acquired a multitude of stakeholders who were strongly motivated to make them succeed.

The same was true of automobiles from the teens of the century onward. Automobiles absorbed much of the nation's glass, steel, and rubber production and also possessed intricate electrical systems which provided vast sales for the manufacturers of electrical parts. Bicycles, the predecessor personal transport technology, lacked such powerful supporters.

Back to Alternative Fuels Vehicles

So what's this all say about alternative fuel vehicles? At this point they seem to lack the attributes of a revolutionary product category. Electric vehicles, particularly those incorporating fuel cells, could entrain whole industries and acquire powerful stakeholders, but we're not seeing the inspired design work and fresh promotional approaches characteristic of revolutionary new forms of transport. I could be that the old patterns will not repeat themselves and that governments and incumbent manufacturers can shepherd in a revolution without the trappings of a revolution. But I wouldn't count on it.