Matthew B. Gilmore
PUBLISHED: MAY 21ST, 2019
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
“… Not calculated to frighten the horses. . . .” That was the condition under which the District of Columbia Commissioners allowed local patent attorney James J. Sheehy to exhibit a horseless carriage during the 1897 presidential inauguration  — even the hoariest of clichés have roots in truth! No other mention is made so perhaps the vehicle did frighten the horses. But the Washington Post reporter on April 3, 1897 breathlessly recounted his expedition on “the first horseless carriage ever seen on the streets of Washington.”
This machine was a Hoadley-Knight Compressed Air vehicle. Inventor Alfred H. Hoadley, Joseph H. Hoadley, W. Kesley Schoepf and his wife, and Mr. Todd from the Eckington Railroad, were in the carriage with the reporter on its jaunt around the city. (It’s important to note that Schoepf had several bankrupt transit lines in his charge as receiver and was under heavy pressure to convert from horse cars.)
The horses they passed all had downcast expressions. Bicyclists raced the carriage and taunted the passengers. “The Commissioners and members of the District Committee in the Senate will be given an outing in a few days,” reported the Post. Whether that happened or not, Hoadley’s compressed air vehicles did not prosper. The commissioners, if they took the ride, were not impressed and banned horseless carriages — a position deprecated by the Chicago Journal and reprinted by the Post on August 17, 1897.
Headline from the Washington Post in 1897 about the first “horseless vehicle” on Washington streets.
Slow and Much Anticipated Introduction
This hesitant introduction of the automobile (as it would eventually be named) contrasts markedly with the local enthusiasm for and adoption of the technology — vehicles (and other) mechanization being the equivalent disruptive technology to digitization today. …..
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