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Posted by on Apr 28, 2009 in At TMV | 1 comment

Will Cars Ever Replace The Family Horse?

Everybody likes alternative energy. How could you not like “live” sources of energy from the sun, the wind, the heat of the earth itself, from running water, more than “dead” energy from coal and petroleum derived from rifling the burial grounds of long deceased creatures.

Many economists and other deep thinkers lament, however, that the transformation from dead to live energy sources to power our way of life involves costs so huge that it will only come about very slowly over a great many years, with the dead stuff continuing to power things during this lengthy interval.

A potent seeming argument, this. But it got me wondering. Might not the same kind of argument have been used in the decade or two before the end of the nineteenth century to “prove” that we could not transform the world’s transportation system from horse-based to auto-based?

From this late nineteenth century perspective, consider costs and other factors that might be involved in making automobiles a practical alternative to the family dobbin. First there’s the reliability factor. Horses will get you where you want to go. They had been doing exactly that for thousands of years. Automobiles, well, sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.

Automotive technology would get better, of course. Everyone acknowledged that. But did you as a consumer or someone whose business depended on getting goods from place to place really want to take a chance with an automobile? Especially since the manufacturers of these contraptions couldn’t even decide yet whether to run them using a gasoline internal combustion engine, steam or electricity. Too many choices here. It would take decades just sorting this out.

And lord, the costs of going from horse transport to auto transport! Railroads were economical because they operated on a limited number of tracks. Try to imagine all the well-paved roads leading to millions of different places that would be needed with an automobile-based transportation system.

Think also about powering this mode of transport. A horse can eat grass along the way. With cars you needed some kind of fuel stations. Thousands and thousands of them. Which in turn would have to restocked again and again with some fueling agent because gasoline didn’t grow on the side of the road.

And while talking about the great new opportunities with cars, one also had to focus on what replacing the horse as basic transportation would mean to existing industries. Next to railroads and agriculture, horse raising was the biggest industry in the country and provided direct and indirect employment for millions of Americans. Would you want companies in this huge industry to go under? Would you want their workers to become unemployed?

Let’s be honest here, these late nineteenth century heavy thinkers would conclude. Automobiles were a rich man’s toy. They would never be manufactured at a cost that would make them practical to the ordinary person. All the numbers and simple common sense made clear that an auto-based culture was a pipe dream. A nice pipe dream, perhaps, but one that must not guide national economic policy.

Such are the arguments that “prove” the automobile would never replace the horse as a basic mode of transport. If you find these arguments persuasive, you will doubtless be persuaded that alternative energy will never replace fossil fuels any times soon.