When Will Electric Cars Really Take Off? Maybe We Should Ask a Horse

The last horse-powered trolley in New York, circa 1917. . (Photo: Brown Brothers/Wikipedia)

Electric cars haven't exactly taken the world by storm: Today, cars with a plug are less than 1 percent of the vehicles sold. But before we relegate them to the dustbin of history, let's go back in time and look at another transition — from the horse to the horseless carriage. That wasn't swift and painless either.

Horse carriage
Horses didn't need gas stations, but they had to be fed and housed--and they produced prodigious amounts of waste.

Horses didn't need gas stations, but they had to be fed and housed — and they produced prodigious amounts of waste.

Let's imagine the U.S. of 1903. We already had 27,000 miles of roads, but they were muddy dirt tracks. Ever wondered why wagons (and early cars) had those high wheels? That's why. The paving of America didn't happen until later. Now add the fact of all that horse traffic, with the average equine producing 45 pounds of dung per day (plus a gallon of urine). No wonder kids could get dangerous work as "dirt boys" to clean the streets.

Into that mix come early automobiles, little more than glorified carriages with primitive gas engines or electric motors. It's not surprising that despite the manifold annoyances of dealing with horses, they were viewed with suspicion. And our faithful saddle pals had been good enough for thousands of years, right? Remember what they yelled at early motorists? "Get a horse!"

1910 new york bus
By 1910, the bus was gas powered — but plenty of people still thought the horseless carriage was a fad and would fade away. (Photo: William Creswell//Flickr)

According to a series in The Tyee called From Horse Dung to Car Smog, "It took the automobile and tractor nearly 50 years to dislodge the horse from farms, public transport and wagon delivery systems throughout North America...[T]he transition was not smooth or inevitable." There were winners (carmakers, oil drillers) and losers (stable owners, feed producers, trainers, et cetera.)

There were 24 million horses in North America by 1900, and they plowed fields and pulled trolleys, buses and the carriages of the wealthy. In 1890, according to The Tyee, New Yorkers took 297 horse-car rides annually.

butcher's van, 1910
A butcher's delivery truck, circa 1910. Commercials were the last to make the transition to gas engines. (Photo: The National Museum of Wales//Flickr)

The transition literature is fascinating — lots of cartoons' and jokes depicting innocent pedestrians having to leap out of the way of oncoming motorists. In "Reggy's Christmas Present," from Life in 1903, a smug young man in goggles and cap is hurtling down the main thoroughfare in his new car, scattering people, dogs and horses. A young woman in another cartoon is advised by her mother to make a quick getaway if she runs over a child. The car was a devil wagon, and reckless driving arrests made headlines.

A book called "The Evolution From Horse to Automobile" celebrates this stuff. A famous illustration showed Lady Godiva riding in a car. In 1909, a cowboy was depicting roping doggies from a horseless carriage. "The noble red man seems to have taken very kindly to the automobile," said a story about cars on Indian reservations. People were fascinated, though. It's not surprising that cars were exhibited in the circus, along with elephants and bearded ladies.

early motoring cartoon
From H.C. Greening in 1911, a cartoon that illustrated the paranoia about devil machines. (Photo: H.C. Greening)

Laws were passed restricting how fast cars could travel, in some cases requiring people with red flags to march along beside them. "We are still feeling the want of a horse in front of some of these odd-looking traps," a wag observed. Taming the automobile largely fell to one guy, William Phelps Eno, who gets credit for the stop sign, the yield sign, the crosswalk, the one-way street and the pedestrian island.

Cars and horses shared the road, not always happily, for decades. The last horse-drawn trolley left the streets of New York in 1917. Mexico City had mule tram service until 1932.

But the automobilizing of America was inevitable, especially because it soon became cheaper to keep a car. In 1900, only 4,192 cars were sold in the U.S.; by 1912, it was 356,000. "The equine was not replaced all at once, but function by function," according to "From Horse Power to Horsepower." "Freight haulage was the last bastion of horse-drawn transportation; the motorized truck finally supplanted the horse cart in the 1920s."

Transitioning to electric cars isn't as big a leap, but it's still a jolt to the system. Don't be surprised if there are bumps in the road.