by Gary Inbinder
On a warm summer day in Southwest England during the ninth year of the reign of His Majesty King George IV, a handsome couple—I’ll call them Mr. and Mrs. Darcy—were out for a breath of air, dashing through the verdant countryside along one of Mr. McAdam’s new roads. They travelled in a jaunty red curricle drawn by a matched pair of high-stepping grays. Pale sunlight streamed through a stand of trees lining the turnpike. A mild wind rustled the leafy branches, barely raising a dust-cloud on the newly laid roadbed.
As they whirled along, the Darcys noticed a strange, dark object looming on the horizon. From a distance, it appeared to be a large carriage of some sort, shimmering in the heat waves and moving toward them at a great rate of speed. The horses sensed it coming; skittish they broke stride and started to gallop. It required all Mr. Darcy’s strength and skill to rein them in.
The unidentified vehicle bore down upon the Darcys; its features soon became distinguishable. Could it have been the Royal Mail Coach out of London led by a galloping team, on its way to Bath? They could see no horses. Instead, they spotted a coachman, or more appropriately a “driver” perched on a seat over a single wheel. He was dressed in top hat and red coat; instead of holding reins he grasped a large handlebar attached to a steering mechanism. Passengers, both ladies and gentlemen, sat above and behind the driver on a dragon-like contraption that belched smoke and cinders and hissed steam from every orifice. There were no familiar sounds of pounding hooves, the slapping and rattling of leather straps and fittings, but rather a mechanically rhythmic thumping, puffing and chuffing and a grinding of wheels on macadam as the monster rumbled forward at a blazing twenty miles per hour.
Mr. Darcy steered the jolting curricle to the roadside where they came to an abrupt halt beside a drainage ditch. He tried to quiet his horses as they snorted, whinnied, and stomped the turf with restless hooves. The “thing” chugged by in a cloud of steam, soot, and dust. Presently, Mr. Darcy turned to his wife with a scowl: “I say, Lizzy, I’m deuced if it ain’t Gurney’s blasted steam carriage!”
Mrs. Darcy frowned and nodded in silent agreement. She lowered her parasol, and then shook and dusted off her white muslin dress. The rumbling subsided; the steam carriage vanished in the distance, leaving a thin trail of smoke in its wake. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy continued their journey in a decidedly less jolly mood following their confrontation with the monstrous progeny of the Industrial Age.
My sketch of an encounter with the steam carriage is fanciful, but such an incident might have occurred on an English road prior to the passage of the Locomotive Acts aka Red Flag Laws that reduced speed limits for “locomotives” to 4 mph in the country and 2 mph in towns and cities, and required a man carrying a red flag to precede each vehicle. These laws retarded the early development of the automobile in Great Britain and their repeal (1894) is celebrated in the annual London to Brighton run for veteran cars.
The steam carriage was the brainchild (there were other steam road vehicles at the time, but Gurney’s was among the first and arguably the best) of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, one of those extraordinary self-taught “gentleman inventors” that seemed to flourish in the nineteenth century. He was born in Cornwall in 1793 into a well-to-do family, studied medicine and practiced as a surgeon, but is best known for his practical inventions including the oxyhydrogen blowpipe, a high-pressure steam jet for extinguishing fires in mines, the Gurney burner and Gurney light. Gurney was knighted in 1863 for improving the lighting and ventilation of the House of Commons. But of all his scientific achievements he is chiefly remembered for building a steam carriage that in 1829 travelled from London to Bath at an average rate of 15 miles per hour.
The steam carriage owed its success to another Gurney invention, the “steam-jet” or blast system that produced greater power in a considerably lighter engine. Interestingly, Gurney’s improvement was incorporated by George Stephenson into his highly successful track locomotive Rocket that made railway travel practical.
For a time, Gurney was associated with the great Scottish civil engineer, Thomas Telford. Telford’s roads had foundations better able than McAdam’s to bear the weight of the steam carriages. He envisioned a British highway system open to steam powered traffic that would compete with the existing canal system and the new railways. There was some interest in Telford and Gurney’s schemes. For example, the famous London to Bath journey was made at the request of the army.
But there were powerful lobbies against the development of the steam carriage, and they had some good arguments on their side. Mining and industry were financially committed to the railways; Stephenson’s improved engines and a faster and cheaper method of producing wrought-iron rails made the fixed track system more efficient and cost effective. The Stockton-Darlington railway (1825) was a commercial success, and that led to the building of the ambitious Liverpool-Manchester line (1830) where passenger trains could run at speeds of 35 miles per hour.
Following Gurney’s successful demonstration of the steam carriage, Sir Charles Dance, using Gurney’s design, initiated a regular service between Gloucester and Cheltenham, the nine mile distance being covered in about 45 minutes. This service ran for three months in 1831. Dance also financed a Gurney designed “drag and omnibus” (the engine pulled the omnibus, an attempt to overcome passengers’ objections to sitting over a boiler) that ran from London to Brighton and made a demonstration run on London streets in 1833. But by that time the light road locomotive was already doomed by commercial and political opposition and the railway’s success. The railways had the mining and manufacturing interests on their side; they were joined by the toll road owners and the mail coach lobby. This combination persuaded Parliament to raise tolls on the steam carriages, effectively driving them out of business. Thomas Telford died in 1834; his vision of a British highway system built for motorized traffic would not be fully realized until the next century. Goldsworthy Gurney went on to other projects and would be honored for his achievements. By the time Gurney died (1875) Siegfried Marcus in Austria and Etienne Lenoir in France had experimented with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. These automotive pioneers were followed by the Germans Daimler, Maybach, and Benz who began marketing his gasoline powered automobiles in the late1880s. Almost sixty years after Gurney’s steam carriage journeyed from London to Bath, the age of the automobile had begun.
Gary is the author of two historical novels published by Fireship Press: Confessions of the Creature and The Flower to the Painter. See the Fireship Press website for more information about Gary and his writing.
©2012 Gary Inbinder