No fan of focus groups, Henry Ford is credited with saying that had he polled the people about their transportation needs, they would have requested “a faster horse.”
Ford might not have been attempting humor.
In the late 1800s, self-powered carriages with names like “buggyaut” and “moto-wagon” were trying to gain traction, both on muddy city streets and in the public’s mind.
In Chicago in 1895, a newspaperman and visionary (a confluence that occurs at least once a century) named Herman Kohlstaat wanted to show the public that automobile technology was here to stay.
Putting his name and reputation on the line, he sponsored a 54-mile road race that, as luck would have it, coincided with 6 inches of new-fallen snow.
For the image of the automobile, it’s hard to imagine a worse PR disaster. First, only six of the 89 entrants were able to make it even so far as the starting line. Of those, two were electric cars whose batteries immediately died in the cold.
Among the cars that actually got out on the course, the less said the better. Macy’s had agreed to sell the Benz automobile, so the department store hoped the race would be good advertising.
It wasn’t. The Macy’s Benz hit a streetcar, then collided with a sleigh and finally rammed a horse-drawn taxi, before withdrawing from the race.
Horses had to be called out to scrape what snow they could from the course, but even so, racers had to wrap their tires in string for traction and roughen up belts with sandpaper to try to keep them from slipping.
The winner, Frank Duryea of Springfield, Mass., finished the 54-mile loop in a winning time of 10 hours and 23 minutes. In contrast, the winner of last year’s JFK 50 Mile logged a time of 5 hours and 46 minutes — on foot.
The Duryea Motor Wagon Company went on to produce a handful of cars each year, but was gone by the time Ford revolutionized the industry. The Duryea GEM model was billed as “The biggest idea in the history of the motor car and the last word in automobile construction.” After a dozen were built, the biggest idea in the history of the motor car went belly up.
So did the brain child of Stephen Balzer, who built a three-cylinder carriage; his business failed after the production of three vehicles. Many followed him into oblivion.
Duryea was among the lucky ones. Some carmakers didn’t even last long enough to give their models a name. We only know of their existence because the automotive remains have been found in abandoned garages.
This perspective on the auto industry is worth keeping in mind.
One of the many unfortunate things about politics is that we seem to have a need to assign winner and loser status to one and all — even to such inanimate, nonpartisan issues as solar energy based on whether your particular candidate supports it or not.
Similarly, if one small cog in these technologies should fail, it is, curiously enough, celebrated by those who have somehow deluded themselves with the notion that politics in 2012 is more meaningful than renewable energy sources that will be productive for centuries to come.
For all any of us knows, President Obama’s promotion of the failed Solyndra solar company was the shadiest deal in the history of earth. Anyone who believes this is the case is free to vote against him.
But this is no reason to believe that government has no interest in boosting the prospects of solar energy, just as it has boosted (and is boosting) the prospects of oil, gas and coal. Nor is it reason to believe that, based on innovators who have tried and failed, there is nothing to the science of solar energy. As alluded to, hundreds of automotive technology start-ups failed years or months after their inception.
Nor is it reason to assume that if we can’t develop solar energy right here in the year 2012, there is no hope for it in the future. The first internal-combustion engine (fueled by coal dust, pine pitch and moss) was built in France in 1806. Not 1906, 1806. It took a century to even get in the neighborhood of perfecting the science.
Fortunately, the people who lived in the days of Napoleon demonstrated more patience than we do today. As for their politics? It was far more bloody, but with an eye to what’s going on in America today, it is hard to take issue with them on that point, either.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.