Books That Cover Two Human Constants: Time and Motion

By Simon Winchester

From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next
By Tom Standage

A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
By David Rooney

The problem with electric cars, their cost and range aside, is that they deprive the private motorist of choice, limit his personal freedom and confound his sense of agency. A driver cannot simply opt to travel from city to city at will, but must plan his route with care, and then stick to it, to be sure of encountering battery-charging stations along the way. The magazine Electrical World and Engineer, not a publication famed for championing libertarian views, was a vocal supporter of the driver’s cause: “One does not wish to limit his country tour to lines of travel along which he can strike charging facilities. … [One] wants to have a certain liberty of action, which a journey fully prearranged does not and cannot give.”

As one might suspect (from the exclusive use of he and his) this is not a recent text. It dates from 1902, long before Elon Musk was the faintest glint in his great-grandfather’s eye. Electric cars, it reminds us, are nothing new. Such conveyances may have been thought of and invented early on, but they went out of fashion for well over a century.

This is one of a score of amusing reminders that find their way into Tom Standage’s eminently readable history of 5,000 years of human movement — movement undertaken not by foot or by feather, but by way of the wheel, the profoundly simple device that is currently believed to have been invented in what is today Poland or Ukraine about 3500 B.C. (China, inventor of most everything else, certainly came up with the wheelbarrow, but the twin wooden discs on which this farmers’ godsend ran 3,000 years later were based on an essentially imported Western technology.)

Just as with modern humankind’s hesitancy to adopt electric cars, so with the wheel itself, which took some while to become popular. The Poles or the people of the Pontic steppe may well have enjoyed the wheel’s mechanical advantages (not slicing them from logs as we used to think, but battening together planks to give them a bigger and so more useful diameter), but the Egyptians still preferred sliding their pyramid stones along, and the idea of building wheeled wagons to be hauled by beasts (or slaves) did not dawn on the valley civilizations of the Nile, the Indus or the Yangtze until much later.

And long after the wheeled vehicle became a commonplace, for centuries many preferred riding horses to juddering along rough terrain supported merely by unforgiving circumferences. A sure-footed animal makes for a far better shock absorber than a rim of wood or iron, and until springs and rubber came along, the wagon and the carriage were employed more for cargo than for comfort-seeking passengers.

The Transition to Electric Cars

    • How Long Until Electric Rules? A new car sold today can last a decade or two before retiring. With more electric cars being sold, how long until they rule the road?
    • G.M.’s Electric Car Goals: The car manufacturer plans to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.
    • What Can the Power Grid Handle? Four key things that need to happen before the U.S. power grid can handle a surge in electric vehicles.
    • Benefits of Electric Cars: They benefit both the environment and your wallet.
    • A Guide to Buying Electric: Shopping for an electric car can be exciting and bewildering. Consider what kind of car you want and need and where you will charge.

    But then such things did come along, and roads were smoothed and hills shaved down — after which it was, everywhere, off to the races. Standage, comfortable enough when dealing with antiquity, truly comes into his own in more modern times, and the book’s pace picks up notably here. He trots, then canters, then gallops through the marvelous confusion of Laufsmachinen and velocipedes and bicycles and then on to horse-drawn omnibuses (150,000 horses in Manhattan, each nag producing 22 reeking pounds of manure every working day) and steam-powered carriages (the streets echoing to the all-too-frequent sound of spectacularly exploding boilers).

    All this we learn until finally there was the historic moment: the bold pre-dawn exploit of one Bertha Benz, who in 1888 surreptitiously took her husband’s prototype Motorwagen and with her two sons and many drums of ligroin, the fuel de jour (gasoline was thought useless and was dumped into swamps), drove 65 miles from Mannheim to Pforzheim to see her mother. And out of this bold act of feminine resolve came the automobile itself, the true star of the story.

    Naturally, this being a comprehensive history, we learn much about Henry Ford and mass production and the Model T, but then of how General Motors cunningly realized that while Ford could make cars, G.M. could sell them (their brands being Chevrolet, Cadillac, Pontiac and one, Buick, from a company that previously made bathtubs) by lending would-be buyers the money to pay for them. The General Motors Acceptance Corporation helped put millions of Americans on the road, helped create the suburb and the commuter and, rather more insidiously, helped put many of those millions on the road to near-permanent indebtedness, as other millions remain today.

    The hinge-point of the book is Standage’s description of the memorably prescient Futurama exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where the designer Norman Bel Geddes (who also drew up plans for a nine-decker amphibious passenger aircraft with 26 engines and a ballroom) offered his startling vision for “the shape of cities in the automotive era,” with people and cars separated safely and in a fashion that would allow the automobile (“in no way responsible for our traffic problems”) to dominate the economic vibrancy of the nation and allow for the freedom of its citizens to go anywhere, anytime.

    Shopping malls, gas stations, drive-ins — and redlining, Robert Moses, urban blight, white flight — all were born of this utopia turned dystopia, and Standage writes with a masterly clarity before turning his attention, as need dictates, to the topic of Our Automotive Future.

    I wish he hadn’t. This is not to say that his writing here is any less vivid; it is rather that he writes of a dreary world of self-driving cars and Ubers everywhere and drone deliveries and electronic highways and artificial intelligence and things that may well be around the corner or the block but that fogies like me wish would just go away. I prefer to recall the lasting charms of the wheeled age, as when I traveled in 1985 to the British-administered South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha on a cargo ship that had a car in its hold and a formal proclamation to be made to the 220 inhabitants: that since this car would now be the second on the island and the two vehicles had the potential to collide, all vehicles on Tristan’s single roadway henceforth must, by order of Her Majesty the queen, drive on the left.

    Telling histories via a selection of particular objects — maps, items in a museum, uniforms — is a current publishing trope. Standage himself had considerable success with “A History of the World in Six Glasses” over a decade ago. Now a prominent British horologist, David Rooney, has entered the lists with his abundantly clever “About Time,” fashionably subtitled “A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks.” His notion is that time-noting instruments of one kind or another (his impartial passion for such items, sundials to plutonium-fueled clocks, he recounts quite touchingly) have been central to human endeavor, and he illustrates the power of such influence by scores of well-curated examples.

    So, taking up a dozen grand historical themes — knowledge, markets, order, identity, war — Rooney finds sundials and time-balls and market-clocks and radio-telescopes that help make his point: The endless ticking of time and our devotion to it has been eternally present, directing behaviors, formulating policies, making fortunes and averting catastrophes (such as the Soviet shooting down of a Korean airliner in 1983, which could have been avoided had the clock-based GPS system, still then experimental, warned the pilot he was straying into Russian airspace).

    The consequence of serving up history in such digestible chunks could be an ultimate want of satiety. But Rooney cleverly manages to avoid this, and though some of his chapters are better than others (connecting Jai Singh’s huge sundial in Jaipur, the great observatory at Samarkand and the Lovell radio-telescope in Cheshire under the rubric of “knowledge” seems a bit of a stretch) the majority are deftly navigated. The manner in which time-keeping devices helped keep the British Empire flourishing for so long, for instance, is especially fascinating. (They still fire a noonday cannon in Hong Kong; tourists who pay $3,600 may pull the trigger.)

    Though the device of structuring books in this particular way may be approaching its sell-by date, this is a lovely and engaging example, with myriad fascinations on every page. Such that Rooney may well be persuaded to examine more closely one or other of his themes — how long-term thinking, for example, might contribute to a sorely needed notion of peace — and expand it further, dive more deeply. That would take time of course, but for Rooney and his readers, I suggest it would be time well spent.

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