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Horse shit, steam power and crap cycling

Satirical artist William Heath produced this fascinating depiction of transport of the future in 1829, a year before the first passenger steam train service, and while horse-drawn stage coaches still ruled the road (they plied their trade on turnpikes, the pay-as-you-go roads of the day).

Heath envisaged non-balloon air transport (the passengers in his bat-plane are convicts being transported to Australia); a steam horse taxi carrying rich passengers; a London to Bath horse-free steam carriage; a vacuum-propelled tube train from Greenwich to Bengal; and a suspension bridge between India and Cape Town.

There’s also a steam-driven watering device to damp down the dusty roads of the day. The turnpikes tended to be surfaced with small stones bedded in by light traffic. When crushed and wetted, the dust from these stones would form a cement. Such ‘water-bound Macadam’ was named for road engineer John Loudon McAdam (1756-1836), and Heath nods to the great Scot in his picture. These metalled roads (metal is the name for the small stones) went out of repair in the 1840s when trains killed the stage-coach and it wasn’t until cyclists came along that such roads were used again.

Yet bicycles are missing from Heath’s 1829 drawing. The first pedal-propelled bicycle had yet to be invented (that was in 1867, by Pierre Michaux of Paris – Kirkpatrick MacMillan of Scotland did not invent the bicycle in the 1840s) but Heath was familiar with Draisine two-wheelers. Also known as hobby horses, or velocipedes or chargers (or in one case, Accelerators), these running machines had been briefly popular in 1818 and 1819. Heath ridiculed the rich ‘dandies’ who strutted their stuff on these machines, as evidenced in these illustrations from 1819.

By 1829, the Draisine craze was long forgotten and so Heath could imagine a future where transport was steam powered. Human locomotion was thought to be a thing of the past.

Heath’s ‘Lord, how this world improves as we grow older’ illustration was from a series called “March of Intellect”, a satirical dig at social reformer Jeremy Bentham who coined the phrase.

The illustration’s title was lifted from the poem The Knight and the Friar by the playwright George Colman the younger (1762-1836):

The Lady wrote just what Sir Thomas told her;

For, it is no less strange than true,
 That Wives did, once, what Husbands bid them do;

Lord! how this World improves, as we grow older!
Another is the use of technology to accomplish

Heath wasn’t predicting the future with the illustration; he was ridiculing the then current fixation on steam power. Heath blames this technology for the erosion of distinctions between the upper and the lower classes. Shocking for the time, a dustman is shown eating an exotic pineapple; his mucker is eating an ice cream.

This is grist to the mill for social historians, but I’m drawn to the shit. The tagline on Steam Horse Velocity says “No slopage on the road.” This is a reference to the copious amounts of horse manure that smothered the roads of Britain at the time. And this sloppy, slippy disease-ridden road surface wasn’t just a Georgian problem (as seen in the above extract from another Heath illustration and which shows that inattentive driving isn’t a new phenomenon), it was a problem throughout the 19th Century, with cities drowning in the stuff. The Highwheelers of the 1880s started the campaign to rid the streets of horse shit, and make the rutted rural roads into smooth highways. Love asphalt? Thank cyclists.


Pictures: British Museum

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