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My lab:

As a kid in school, I once saw a diagram of the succession of horse-drawn carriages, early car-carriages and then cars. I wasn't able to find a good illustration, so I picked some examples I found and made my own sequence:


As a kid, with 20/20 hindsight, I wondered: what was so difficult in making a car look like a car and not like a horse carriage where the horse was missing? While looking for the diagram today, I even found a steam traction engine from the same year Benz built his first car, 1886, which looked much more like a car (with, e.g., steering wheel and all) than any of the actual 'cars' until Ford's Model T only 22 years later. The concept of a steering wheel was not novel, even the very carriage-looking electric car from 1897 (under the Benz Coupé from the same year) appears to have one. And yet, most cars looked like carriages without horses for another eleven years, when all of a sudden, Ford built something that actually looked like a car for the first time.

Why, despite technological role models from other areas, were people trying to make cars look like the familiar carriage for twenty years? Given the success of the Model T, one would assume it wasn't the skepticism of the buyer. It probably wasn't any technological problem, as the steam engine shows. Or was the market just not ripe enough until 1908? Not being a historian, I'm not sure how trivial it is to answer these questions, but the sequence shows that humans tend to hang on to dysfunctional design and technology even in the presence of clearly superior technologies. What is it that makes us chose the inferior traditional over the superior novel, at least for some transition period? How can we spot the superior technology and use it right away, avoiding the mistakes of the past?

I ask myself these questions whenever I observe how corporate publishers along with too many of my colleagues, discuss the future of scholarly publishing. The scientific community in general is still attached to the carriage model and hesitant to embrace the Model T. We now have modern technology allowing us to build the scholarly communication equivalent of the Model T, and yet, much of the discussion is still focused around which horse to use, only sometimes the potentiality of actually getting rid of the horse: people wonder what one should use instead of impact factors, how publishing data is a major problem, if the taxpayer should have access to the research they funded, if scholarly societies should still use horses to make money, which paper version should be linked to on PubMed, or what the article of the future should look like and many other silly things like that. None of these issues would even exist, if we dropped all historical baggage and designed a scholarly communication system for the 21st century.

Many people may think Ford was a genius and they may be correct, but to care more about technology than tradition doesn't require genius. Come on people, let's not waste twenty years on horseless carriages, only to find out we could have built a Model T today! Drop the carriage and go for the car!
Posted on Tuesday 22 January 2013 - 17:18:46 comment: 5

Neuroskeptic posted on22 Jan 13: 19:24:

Interesting. But I wonder if inventors could have come up with a car-like design earlier but thought, these cars are new and scary (literally - they might explode) so let's make them look as familiar as possible...?

bjoern posted on23 Jan 13: 12:39:
Comments: 322

Indeed, that's a possibility, as I wrote "skepticism of the buyer". However, if that had been the case, the Steam Tractors would have been even scarier, given their size and noise level. Also, the Model T success seems to indicate that the market was just waiting for a decent car - and not skeptically holding off. Moreover, people at the time were traveling in trains and boats driven by steam engines, so their reluctance can't have been all that great. Finally, the early cars featured not only combustion engines, many of them were propelled by electric motors, which can't explode (see the penultimate photograph) and they still looked like carriages.
All of this of course doesn't replace a market survey in the late 1880 and 1890s which presumably never took place, but argues suggestively that it was a development more on the supply side and less so on the demand side.

Michael Grayer posted on24 Jan 13: 16:09:

Honestly, I don't believe that either the technology or customer demand was the reason why cars resembled carriages for so long. It wasn't a case of taking so long to think novel thoughts, but a case of taking so long to manufacture novel products.

Cars continued to look like carriages mainly because carriage-makers continued to exist, and became the primary manufacturers and repairers of car bodywork. The carriage-maker's trade was a difficult one, requiring extensive skill, practice and craftsmanship. However, a carriage-making industry already existed.

There was always a desire to break free from the technological limits imposed by the horse-drawn carriage's design, but wasn't until the invention and adoption of assembly-line manufacturing that completely non-carriage-like cars could be mass-produced.

(I take as my source Tim Hunkin's Secret Life Of Machines documentary, which is thoroughly enjoyable viewing if you haven't seen it before

bjoern posted on24 Jan 13: 16:47:
Comments: 322

But wasn't much of the pre-assembly line work and design done by hand and individually anyway, i.e., 'manufactured'? In that case, it should not have been a technical issue of at least designing prototypes that looked like cars, did they exist? Why couldn't some of the manufacturing (e.g. steering!) be adapted from steam machines (as, e.g. the electric car above)? Why were the steam tractors much more like cars?
You explanation may be a contributing factor but sounds implausible for a main reason, at least for me as a rather ignorant amateur in this area.

Michael Grayer posted on25 Jan 13: 13:41:

Yes, pre-assembly line work and design was done by hand, and individually, but the point was that there was already a thriving carriage-making industry in existence. To completely redesign the car would require a car-maker to learn an entirely new set of skills, which would be time-consuming and risky (as it was still not clear at the time that the car industry would be the resounding success we now know it to be). It wasn't until assembly-line manufacturing, which meant that relatively unskilled labour could be employed because the workers only had one small job to do, that breaking free from the carriage design was possible.

One other factor which I entirely missed in my last comment was the use of pressed steel, which further liberated the design of the car. Edward Budd was one of the pioneers in that area, and he didn't start his company till 1912.

As for the design of tractors looking more like modern cars, I don't know. Perhaps it's because the influences on personal transport and industrial transport were separate from each other at that time? Perhaps the similarity is more to do with the materials used: the steam-powered tractor necessitated a large metal boiler, which was less economical to manufacture than the wooden bodywork used by carriages at the time (until the introduction of mass-produced steel body parts)? Also, I can't imagine that being seated behind a giant boiler (as in the tractor) was particularly popular for personal driving. I'm not sure of the sequence of events here.

However, I do think there are lessons for the creation of a 21st century academic publishing model to be learned here. In my view it will require a revolution in "manufacturing" practices, in a similar vein to the introduction of assembly line methods and mass-produced steel body parts, before academic authors can free themselves of the traditional publishing model.

My point is this: I think there certainly were technical reasons (if not necessarily purely technological reasons) why car designs remained carriage-like for so long. I don't think a desire to cling to tradition really had anything to do with it. Similarly I don't think a desire to cling to traditional journal publishing really exists, and the barriers to breaking free lie elsewhere.

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