Carriages Without Horses Shall Go: One of the First Books About Cars

December 06, 2016

Carriages Without Horses Shall Go: One of the First Books About Cars

There's no question that automobiles were one of the most transformative technologies of the 20th century, and the 21st-century rise of autonomous vehicles will see that trend continue. But in the 1890s cars were little more than a novelty, and few were forward-thinking enough to predict the automotive revolution. One who did was the British engineer Alfred Robert Sennett, whose book "Carriages Without Horses Shall Go" was one of the first books on automobiles. 

Efforts to devise efficient automotive engines took off in the 1880s when the patent on the Otto four-stroke engine expired, and by the 1890s a number of companies were producing motor-cars in small numbers. In 1896 three books were published that are now considered "automotive incunabula" (incunabula means "of the cradle" and the term is more commonly used to refer to books published during the first fifty years of printing). They were "Farman's technical and historical treatise, Knight's guide for owners and operators, and Sennett's 'Carriages without horses shall go' (Norman Library of Science and Medicine 766).

The book's title was taken from a Victorian hoax prophecy attributed to the 15th-century Yorkshire soothsayer, Mother Shipton. There are various published versions, but most start with the lines: "Carriages without horses shall go, and accidents fill the world with woe...". The verse goes on to list a number of other developments, some obviously true at the time ("around the world thoughts shall fly, in the twinkling of an eye") and others less so ("the world then to an end shall come, in eighteen hundred and eighty-one").

Sennett included in his book chapters on the history of automotive engineering; contemporary car models and manufacturers; laws and regulations relating to automobiles; and the dispute between the carriage makers and the engineers as to who should have precedence over car manufacturing (Sennett sensibly suggested that the undercarriages and mechanical parts could be built by the engineers and the passenger cabins by the carriage makers). It's also full of wonderful illustrations of cars and engineering diagrams.

Most important, though, Sennett argued persuasively that automobiles were what we might call a disruptive technology. They would become a major transportation method and one of their most important roles would be hauling heavy goods, such as agricultural produce and coal, from rural areas into cities (he describes this in detail in the chapter "Horseless Bread delivery"). Just a few years later Sennett also became a supporter of the garden cities movement, with which motor-cars became so inextricably entwined, and he even published a book about this theory of urban planning.

"Carriages Without Horses Shall Go" is now an uncommon book, and only two copies have appeared at auction since 1998. This is a nice example in the original publisher's cloth, and I'm really pleased to have it in stock as it's a book that I've been looking for for a long time.