The Amazing Electrical Horseless Taxi Cab

Picture courtesy of Originally from Punch Magazine

Picture courtesy of Originally from Punch Magazine

It is one of the features of the old stories which came out of 221B, Baker Street, London, that Sherlock Holmes always took cabs everywhere.

He and Watson fly around the British capital courtesy of the old London cabbie system: small, utilitarian horses and carriages driven by hackney,or haquenée horses: those small enough for a young woman to ride.

The first cab was hailed in 1621, and the first ordinance to control them  in 1662.  And they have been around ever since, clattering through the streets to get people to some apointment or other. Latterly the horses disapeared; the internal combustion engine came to London’s cabs in 1901, and they were joined by omnibuses. Beneath the horse’s hooves steam trains began to wail through tunnels taking passengers.

The last horse-drawn hackney carriage went out of service in 1947.

But people always need a cab. Today, in the present day “Sherlock” which has made Benedict Cumberbatch such a prized commodity, they still take cabs everywhere in memory of the first Holmes, whose stories span 1880-1914.

But just imagine if the original Holmes and Watson had flown out of Baker Street on some great errand and jumped into a cab, only to discover that it did not have a horse?

Such a scene would have been perfectly historically accurate, even three years before the end of the 19th century.

Because before petrol-powered cars came a soundless fleet, launched in 1897.

They called them ‘hummingbirds’.

There’s one on show right now at the Science Museum, though I believe its time there grows short.  Owner Walter Bersey had a fleet of 12 in 1897, but it expanded rapidly to 75 cars.

They were not small. Weighing two tons, they looked like any carriage, except without the horse. They were huge by comparison with today’s cars, with thin rubber tyres to negotiate the city’s greasy streets. They had brittle glass-plated batteries, which could only be recharged at the recharge station in Lambeth.

For two years, the vehicles would sneak up on Londoners with a telltale hum, frightening the bejeezers out of them because, of course, there was no rattle of hooves to announce their arrival, just an ethereal buzz.

But like many visionary projects it could not recover its costs. Walter Bersey lost more than £6000 in the first year; those high-tech rubber tyres were never going to be able to stand the weight of the carriages, and generating the firm’s electricity became an issue. But most of all, all the cabbies with their horses sent up a great furore. They could see the future stretching out without their kind. And they were far from pleased.

The newspapers took up the cabbies’ cause, reporting accidents and breakdowns with studied attention. And in 1899, Mr Bersey’s cabs were pulled off the road, once and for all.

They paved the way for the combustion engine, it is true. Perhaps the cabbies had had time to get used to the idea of a carriage without a horse by its introduction in 1901. On can only speculate as to the contribution of the horseless fleets, which took to the streets in the subsequent half century, to the smoggy ‘pea soupers’ which could prove killers.

Yet before the turn of the nineteenth century, London had held the secret to a clean-air transport system within its grasp, fuelled by a little station in Lambeth.

I’ll leave you with Sherlock and Watson: one of their first conversations. In a taxi cab, of course.


40 thoughts on “The Amazing Electrical Horseless Taxi Cab

  1. an idea before its technological time. how many of them have died and become hardly a memory when later they would prove to be wonderful

      1. Some of the rocket scientists count among the dumb, actually. A classic example is provided by the ballpoint specially engineered to work in space – as opposed to the pencil.

    1. Interesting, isn’t it, Sidey? Almost as if London had to get used to the idea before it could accept it. Shame the combustion engines turned up in their wake.

  2. Astonishing to learn that what we assume are 21st century ideas, have actually been around for years! They wouldn’t have known about patents then or his heirs would have benefited ‘big time’ 😀

    1. Bersey had patented his car in 1894, I believe, Madhu – but what an interesting issue; I wonder if his familiy have benefited from subsequent electric car designs?

  3. I had read every Holmes story by age 14. It was then, by context clues) that I figured out that a hansom(not a word in American English usage) was a cab ie horse drawn carriage.

  4. I’d never heard of the Hummingbird. Such an unlikely name for such a gross and graceless lump. However, I do like the idea and the fact that Mr.Bersey’s dream may well become a 21st Century reality, if a little more refined than the original.

  5. This is extraordinarily interesting. I love the “hummingbird” … combining a poetic name with a prosaic (however practical) item. And I enjoyed that you put this in a Holmesian setting to tell the story. Well done and another one I will remember. Thanks, Kate.

  6. Great post – thank you for all the information you pack in to your writing. The history of science has always been about politics too – and social psychology, the horse-cabbies fear of loss echoed by the press!

  7. I imagine any episode of Sherlock Holmes filmed with a horseless carriage scene would have most people screaming, ‘Anachronism!’ at the tops of their voices.

  8. It is a good reminder that the tendency of a craft to fight to preserve its conventions is often a weapon against the future–which eventually comes about anyway. The old trolley cars were wiped out in favor of the automobile and now Southern California legislators are voting to release millions and billions to bring them back. I think we’d need to go back much further to find horse drawn, but it’s all similar in spirit. I’d love to see the exhibit of this horseless taxi cab. And the “new” Sherlock is very popular in my home! We love it and have developed quite an appreciation for Mr. Cumberbatch! The frustration is waiting for episodes to make their way across the Atlantic! 🙂

  9. Oh, that Sherlock. Steven Moffat doesn’t miss a trick. I’ve not read the books (yes, I KNOW…), so I didn’t know the cabs were a nod to the novels, but I should have assumed it.

    And those hummingbirds, they are the stuff of steampunk dreams, even with their batteries.

  10. If only . . .
    What an opportunity lost.

    On an unrelated note: Tonight’s the night! (Last night too):

    BFF and I just enjoyed a peek at the Planetary Triple of Venus (bottom), Jupiter (left) and Mercury (right) in the night sky just past sunset. We’re going to head out again in a few minutes when the sky is a tad darker.

    You should be able to view it tomorrow at sunset (if clouds don’t get in the way)

  11. It is interesting to imagine what our streets and highways would be like today if we had gone with electric vehicles way back when and never used a gasoline engine for cars.

  12. I love it when you talk technical to us! I had never heard of the hummingbirds. I did know that trolleys with overhead wires were banned from central London. They had to use a power source that was centrally located beneath the tracks. The problem with that is that they trough for that line would often become jammed or clogged with dirt or other debris.

    But thank you for the pointer – I will need to do some further research on the hummingbirds!

    1. You would. And one did make it as far as the Science Museum in London. But they only preceeded combustion engines by a few short years. A drop in the temporal ocean.

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