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From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next

by Tom Standage

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 2021
ISBN: 978-1-63557-361-9
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A 5,000-year-long road trip.

Economist deputy editor Standage’s previous books have a wry quirkiness about them, and his latest fits nicely alongside A History of the World in 6 Glasses and An Edible History of Humanity. The author’s methodology involves statistics and facts in moderation, leavened with humorous trivia in the service of entertaining and informing readers. Here, the author offers a witty, expansive, evolutionary look at transportation history. “It all starts with the wheel,” he writes. The wheel’s origin has been debated for centuries but was likely first made in the Carpathian Mountains during the Copper Age, and it found wide use with the invention of the horse-drawn chariot. “The adoption of the wheel,” however, hit a “bump in the historical road” with the rise of cavalries. Carts and wagons were already in use, and the horse was the way to go, but in the 16th century, the four-wheeled coach became popular. They could create barriers and carry small cannons. As road conditions improved, stagecoaches and the larger omnibus gained favor. The steam engine led to the first powered vehicle and the locomotive, and “railways transformed urban life.” A human-powered running bicycle appeared in 1817, followed by the pedal-driven bicycle, which could “stay upright as if by magic.” The internal combustion machine begat the motorcycle and then, in 1886, the three-wheeled Motorwagen, which helped reduce the number of unhealthy manure-strewn streets. Although expensive, their popularity grew. In 1908, Ford launched its $850 Model T, and by 1923, the revolutionary, mass-produced car’s price had fallen to $298. As their numbers increased, so did fatalities, the rise of traffic lights, paved roads, highways, and suburbia. The author drives on through gas stations, car culture, drive-in restaurants, pollution, and electric and autonomous cars to the finish line.

Standage nimbly touches all the bases in this sprightly historical race.