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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Poop poop!
Emerging technology is a dreadful Siren for a fiction writer. Nothing dates faster than the future. How many films from the '60s and '70s have been rendered ridiculous by room-sized computers a-flicker with lights and reeling with tapes? How many trendy yuppies had the line of their jackets spoilt by mobile phones the size and weight of bullion? Then of course there’s the problem of inflation...

It's not an entirely new problem. I've just been reading "Lord Beden's Motor" (1901) by J. B. Harris-Burland, in which the narrator experiences a terrifying night-time drive, courtesy of the eponymous peer. It's full of descriptions like this:

"What the deuce is it?" I said.

"You'll see when we come up to it," the Earl answered, between his teeth. "We shall go faster in a few minutes.""

We were, however, going quite fast enough for me, and though I have ridden on many motors since, and occasionally at a greater speed, I shall never forget that ride along the Kelston Road. The powerful machine beneath us trembled as though it were going to fall to pieces


We dashed through Kelston like a streak of light. It was fortunate that all the inhabitants were in bed. Then we shot out on to a road leading across the open moor, which stretches from here to the sea, twenty miles away, and I remembered that eight miles from Kelston there was a steep descent into the valley of the Stour, and it was scarcely possible that we could escape destruction. I quickly made up my mind to overpower Lord Beden and gain control of the machine.


[Lord B's response] "If you meddle with me we shall be smashed to pieces. We are going at forty miles an hour, and if you distract my attention for a single instant I won't answer for the consequences."

Forty miles an hour? Night-time or not, that's somehow a little deflating.

There is a story that, in the early days of the railroad, a couple of students at Oxford told the proctor that they'd just arrived from London in merely two hours. They were sent down for such an outrageous fib.

Another story I've read about the early days of rail is that there were fears that people would not be able to breathe at 40 mph.

Edited at 2014-01-08 04:57 pm (UTC)

And a few decades later Dr Spooner would be expelling recalcitrant students by the town drain...

I had the same reaction when reading about Lord Peter speeding around curves in Busman's Honeymoon, but then I realized that early twentieth-century cars lacked most or all of the safety features that make it possible to drive at seventy-five MPH without difficulty or particular danger. There were no seatbelts. There was no cruise control. There were no airbags. I don't know car history very well, but I imagine that the cars vrooming around in 1901 didn't even have roofs or sealed doors. Forty miles an hour would be terrifying if you could fall out of every car you'd ever seen.

This is very true - and in fact, the story refers at one point to a "steering gear", which makes me wonder whether it was all done by levers. (Actually, when did steering wheels come in? I assume they're inspired by a ship's wheel.)

One of the most exciting things I did as a child was travel at 60 mph in a friend's dad's car. 60 mph is my normal cruising speed these days, even though I mostly drive on A-roads, but back then my friend's dad drove a 1933 4-seater Aston Martin. It was open top and we had the top down and roared along for a day out in Blackpool, at 60 mph!! It was thrilling. :)

The car looked something like this, only turquoise and my friend's dad was a builder and used it to pull a trailer.

Oh my, that's stylish!

I was once the third passenger in a two-seater MG, folded up in that space where one throws shooting-sticks. That felt scary-fast.


Running boards and doors with the hinge in the middle - both excellent design features!

Yeah--letters and diaries are replete with deaths after smashups at thirty mph.

Another consideration is that there was no driving test, no driving instructors, no Highway Code, other road users weren't used to cars, and people generally just weren't very good at driving yet.

40 miles per hour on an English road in a turn of the century car? That's not disappointing, it's terrifying.

The roads would be unlighted, for one thing.

Yes - as country roads generally still are - although Lord B's car (we are told) is blessed with particularly powerful headlights.