Engine of Liberation


THE AUTOMOBILE IS NOT AN AMERICAN invention. But an industry capable of manufacturing automobiles in vast numbers at prices the common man can afford most certainly is. And it is this invention that changed the world.

To get some idea of just how much, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine it is six o’clock in the afternoon of a late August day in the year 1900. We are standing at the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue in the heart of New York City. On the southwest corner rises the great ivy-clad receiving reservoir of the city’s water supply. Now empty, it will soon be torn down to make way for the New York Public Library.

On the northeast corner stands the house of Levi P. Morton, international banker, former Vice President of the United States, and former governor of New York. Northward the mansions of the nation’s other superrich line both sides of the avenue as far as Central Park and, on the east side of the thorough-fare, far beyond. The temperature is ninety; the humidity is not much lower. Cloud banks building in the west promise rain, and perhaps relief, in an hour or two.


Listen for a second. What do you hear?

You hear the horses. In the greatest metropolis of the Western Hemisphere there are nearly as many horses as there are people, perhaps two million animals throughout the five boroughs. The thousands of vehicles plunging up and down the avenue and the nearby cross streets in the gathering rush hour are almost all pulled by one or more of them. Their iron shoes clang on the Belgian paving blocks at every step; their harnesses and bells jingle with every movement; their snorts and whinnies and occasional screams punctuate the background noise.

THE AUTOMOBILE put its stamp on this country socially, economically, even artistically, as no other invention ever has.

You take a deep breath. What do you smell?

You smell the horses. It is an odor as overwhelming and pervasive as the smell of cheese in a cheese factory. To be sure, the inhabitants of that world do not notice it. They have smelled it all their lives, and their brains, in self-defense, have long since ceased to bring it to conscious attention. But we, brief visitors from the future, are almost gagged by it.

You look about you. What do you see?

You see the horses. Far worse, you see what the horses do to the streets. Many are sweating profusely, their tongues lolling out of their foam-beslobbered mouths as they labor in the heat. All are urinating and defecating frequently. Each horse produces about two gallons of urine a day and twenty pounds of excrement. That’s twenty thousand tons a day in New York City, greater than the weight of a battleship of the time. House sparrows, imported in the 1850s, ate the seeds in the droppings and help break them up to be more easily washed away. Nourished by this inexhaustible food supply, the birds breed in enormous numbers and excrete in their turn.

And horses die. The more unfortunate, which pull not the carriages of the rich but the drays of ordinary commerce, often die in harness, and their bodies are left by the sides of the streets, to be dragged off by private contractors paid by the city. Perhaps an average of twenty-five a day drop dead on the streets of Manhattan, more in the heat and stress of high summer. The bodies are cleared quickly from so busy and fashionable a corner as Forty-second and Fifth, but in the side streets and less elegant parts of town their remains can lie for days, swelling and stinking in the August sun, a mecca for flies, before they are carted off and disposed of.

IN 1996, HOWEVER, THEY ALL ARE gone, except for a few dozen carriage horses that haul tourists at extravagant prices in nice weather. Today the swish of tires over asphalt and the hum of engines provide the background music for the city’s streets, rather than the clip-clop of horses. The horn blast of an angry driver has replaced the shriek of a suddenly terrified animal.

The next time you read an article on the horrors of automobile pollution, you might remember your brief visit to another time and another place, a place and time where the pollution of horses lay underfoot as thick as fallen snow and filled the air as thick as fog. Then, perhaps, you’ll give a silent thank-you to Henry Ford and his brethren for freeing us from the tyranny of the horse, which, after all, was exactly what they set out to do in the first place.

Of course, those men did much more than that. It was the cheap automobile, far beyond any other invention, that transformed the daily life of the nineteenth century into that of the twentieth, especially in America, a country that loves its cars almost as much as it loves its liberty.