On September 11 at the Niagara Power Vista in Lewiston, an event hosted by Tesla owners in New York State was held that largely heralded the local announcement of the advent of the electric automobile. It reminded me of that time in American history in the late 1890s when the first horseless carriages were invented. It was a time of great change and innovation.
The September event was a gathering of electric automobiles in a location in western New York State where hydroelectric power is plentiful and Nikola Tesla’s inventions are used to transmit it for free, charging the battery. on the spot. Both electric and hybrid (gasoline and electric) vehicles of all brands were there: Teslas, Hondas, Chevrolet Volts, Hyundai, Nissan Leafs; and the owners, the first adapters of the new technology, stood nearby to answer questions.
Many visitors to the event did not own an electric car, they were just curious and had many questions about the future. How does an electric car work? Where’s the battery? Are they really going to replace gasoline cars and trucks? How far can you go? And, asking myself out loud, will I finally have one?
Today is a time of technological innovation, which leads to predictions that many vehicles sold in the near future will be electric. Change is coming; Tesla vehicle owners say it’s already there.
The rapid shift from horse-drawn carts to gas, electric or steam powered cars in the late 1800s was also a time of confusion, hesitation, experimentation, and the creation of new fledgling businesses. .
Many of the producers of the new motorized strollers were local, so I decided to investigate what Niagara County companies did in the late 19th century to meet the challenge of the horseless era to come. What I found was surprising.
Niagara County was a region of automotive pioneers. According to my research, the self-taught engineers residing in Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Lockport, Gasport and Wilson have started a number of companies that have produced at least one prototype vehicle during this period of transition and, equally importantly, they were inventing and experimenting with new designs.
These early innovators included:
– In Niagara Falls, Niagara Motor Car Company, Niagara Automobile Company and Cataract Machine and Automobile Company.
– In northern Tonawanda, the Herschell-Spillman Company and the Starin Company.
– At Lockport, SBM Steam, Lockport Bicycle Works, The Covert Motor Vehicle Company, American Motor Truck Company and Dussault Motors.
– At Gasport, Friend Manufacturing Company.
– In Wilson, the Wilson Automobile Manufacturing Company (Brooks Machine Shop) later continued as LaSalle-Niagara in Niagara Falls.
Other companies were created to produce vehicles and components. A slim story remains as to whether they produced a vehicle; many stores and their tools were then bought and used by other companies. It was a rapidly changing industry. Trade publications such as “The Horseless Age” (1895-1918) contained advertisements for vehicles, transmissions, radiators, frames and engines of Niagara County companies.
Note: New York State – still progressive – required motor vehicles to be registered in 1901; it was the first state to initiate it. The first number plates were handcrafted with the owner’s initials. In 1910, the state began producing official New York plaques.
Converting to horsepower was simpler around the turn of the 20th century, as any enterprising forge could power a buggy. One of the main concerns was noise as horses mingled with motor vehicles on the street and were easily scared. (Although, in hindsight, people realized that horses had drawbacks.) Electric and steam vehicles were quieter. Early gasoline engines could be noisy, due to poor gas quality and lack of refinement in refueling the engines. For a moment, it looked like soft electric energy was going to dominate.
Whatever power, local innovators have faced strong skepticism from investors and the public. The horse, which had long served man, was a tough competitor.
Among the many interesting vehicles developed in Niagara County, here is some information on two of them. (I will highlight more of these vehicles in a future article):
– The Niagara Motor Car Company produced an unusual car called “Lad’s Car”. This was a category of cars known at the time as juvenile cars. They were small and could be handled by a younger person, but also served as a wanderer by adults. The boy’s car had a single seat and a 3-5 horsepower single-cylinder engine. The car was sold primarily as a kit and the company claimed it was the first kit car on the market. The boy’s car could be registered for the street. Buffalo’s exceptional Pierce Arrow Museum displays a beautifully restored boy’s carriage.
– The Wilson Automotive Manufacturing Company produced the âNiagaraâ car at the Brooks Machine Shop on Young Street in Wilson. Stanley Dwight, George Brooks, Joe Whiteside and George Whiteside produced the first prototype. With a turn of the century date, the Niagara was a very early car. It was a two passenger runabout with a 5 horsepower single cylinder engine.
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As in the early 1900s, many of the vehicles sold in about 15 years are now predicted to be electric. Is there anything to learn from the rapid change from horse transport to motorized transport?
In order for the new horseless buggy to be successful, it had to be fine-tuned and smoother. The infrastructure had to be available – stations for refueling and repairs – and the cost had to come down.
It only took about 15 years for the streets of local towns to have more cars and trucks than horses, but initially the early cars were too expensive for the average person. Henry Ford’s Model T is recognized as providing the public with a competent vehicle at a lower cost. Introduced in 1908, it initially sold for $ 590; in 1915, due to a reduction in manufacturing costs, the price fell to $ 390.
What are the lessons learned from examining this ancient history of transportation?
First, the change will come faster than we thought.
Second, the infrastructure will have to improve.
Third, for the public to embrace the new vehicles, we will need to see a modern equivalent of the Ford Model T, that is, an electric vehicle as good as any existing gasoline car or truck, for a reasonable price. . , with ease of use and a wide range.
This electric vehicle is currently not available.
Another serious issue during the transition concerns livelihoods. Businesses that sell and service gasoline vehicles will be phased out or converted to businesses that sell and service both gasoline and electric vehicles.
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So, with the rise of the horseless buggy, what have they done with the horses? The horses were sent to the countryside. They were gradually phased out with many subsidiaries such as the blacksmiths. This has been done without haste in the rural areas; horses were still used for agricultural work.
As electric vehicles gain market share, what will we do with gasoline vehicles? A September 24, 2021 article in the New York Times, “Why Rural US Roads May Resemble Cuba’s,” suggested that displaced cars and trucks are likely to survive for a long time as they are used and maintained in rural America.
In other words, it looks like the horses are heading for the country and eventually gasoline vehicles will also be rounded up and join them, sheltering in place in the countryside.
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My thanks to the Tesla Owners Club of New York State, the Pierce Arrow Museum, and the Lockport Public Library for sharing the resources that helped inform this article.
Originally from Lockport, Jim Boles is the operator of Vanishing Past Press, whose goal is to develop, publish and market scholarly and culturally significant work relating to under-examined and unexplored local history. Contact him at [email protected]