History’s worst invention – the car

Published in The Freeman (Philippine Star), Mar. 8, 2012

The title today would probably solicit a synchronized chorus of “Waaah!” from a lot of people. And since Sen. Serge O. asked, after Sen. Miriam immortalized it, that’s how it’s spelled, though many add more “a’s” on it depending on the passion of the speaker, mostly by MMORPG “adeks” chatting while fighting monsters. “Waaah! – worst invention? Many do consider the car (archaic name, the “automobile”) as the most important form of mobility in history. For many, there’s nothing which can offer the most convenient, fast, and easy, door-to-door transport, today. Except of course, if you’re caught in a traffic jam!

Transportation has come a long way from its earliest primitive form, walking, which still exists today and is even revived as the better mode by many. From ancient times of the cavemen and nomads, transport serves two basic human endeavors – trade and war. When early man discovered that circular things roll easily, the wheels were invented. But even before that, man invented tools and equipment to aid in transporting goods and people. From early contraptions like the travois, the Philippine version of which is still widely used in the rural areas, wheels led to carts, chariots, rickshaws, and the like. The domestication of animals resulted to carriages drawn by horses, oxen, elephants, and even dogs in Alaska. Horses were by the far, the most popular choice, to a point that transport engines now are measured in “horsepower.” In Cebu, we still have the “tartanilla,” … one horsepower strong!

Originally, man goes anywhere without a need of a road. But as civilization and settlements flourished, tracks upgraded into trails, later forming trade routes. Wheeled vehicles, though drawn by animals, needed widened and flattened surfaces to travel. Thus the need for roads emerged, and pavement technology started – from the early mud-packed surfaces and the Roman roads covered by cut logs, to the modern-day macadam and concrete pavements. Rivers and waterways required bridges and so started bridge engineering – simple beam, arch, truss, to today’s suspension and cable-stayed ones. Apart from roads, the development of rail also introduced a new form – one that runs on railroad tracks – the precursor of modern-day subways and metros.

From the start, whether in peacetime trade or war, capacity was the issue – the bigger the vehicle and the more people and/or goods it carries, the better. While the ranges of the American Mid-west allow cowboys to ride their own horses, many “cities” in Medieval times required a more “shared” system. In the 17th century, the first “public bus” emerged – horse-drawn, with regular route, schedule, and fare system. The industrial revolution replaced animals as the main propulsion with engines and other mechanical gadgets – more powerful, more efficient, and more economical. In the 18th century, the first self-propelled road vehicle was invented, and after that, the first steam powered locomotive. The 19th century brought first practical steam-powered railroad locomotive. But it was only in 1885 that world first saw the first practical automobile to be powered by an internal combustion engine. At the turn of the century, Henry Ford improved the assembly line for car manufacturing. From then on, the car emerged as the king of the road, an inseparable part of man’s daily routine, every young child’s toy, teenager’s dream, and family man’s ambition.

But with it came the scourge of modern lifestyle, the ever-worsening headache of developing cities, and every country government’s nightmare – traffic congestion! Ask yourself – how many times during the day do you complain of traffic jams? No wonder more and more people talk of “walkable cities.” … going back to where we first came from. (to be continued)



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