I recently read an article about a company called Mobileye; a manufacturer of collision avoidance systems for cars and trucks. The article announced that the company was partnering with a major German manufacturer of automobiles to develop self-driving cars. This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard of the autonomous vehicle. One would have to have been pulling a Rip Van Winkle to have missed Google’s big announcement of its plans to develop the self-driving car; or the May 2016 headlines that announced the first tragic death of an occupant in an autonomous vehicle on a Florida highway. I’m not one too pooh pooh technology, but haven’t we been through this before?
One major mode of transportation before the widespread acceptance of the automobile was the horse and buggy. The buggy was powered by one or more horses, and the driver directed the speed and the direction of the horses and subsequently the buggy. Basically there were two brains on board, and the horse was always a variable – a breathing and thinking organism that sometimes ignored the direction of the driver and did its own thing; sometimes with tragic consequences. I’ll share a few examples of these incidents that occurred over the years in Marengo.
In a six day span in June of 1885 downtown Marengo was the scene of two incidents involving runaway horses. The first occurred when a Mr. Pearsall of Huntley was visiting Marengo in his nearly new buggy. For some reason his team became frightened and bolted, with Mr. Pearsall behind the reins, east on Washington from State St. leaving chunks of the buggy along the way. The accident must not have too serious because the June 26, 1885, edition of the Marengo Republican News reported no injuries to Mr. Pearsall or his horse. Six days later a man identified as “Uncle Mike Levoy” was headed down State St. in a “dump wagon” and crossed the railroad tracks in front of the 11:00 a.m. freight train. The team became frightened and bolted down State St. In the vicinity of Abbot’s store “Uncle Mike” was thrown from the wagon which resulted in a severely sprained ankle. The horses weren’t injured and no property damage was reported.
For a time when Marengo’s horses occupied city streets alongside the technologically superior automobile, and the two modes of transportation sometimes clashed. On March 20, 1923, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Miller were in Marengo in their horse-drawn sleigh, when they encountered what the newspaper described as an “auto truck” near the railroad tracks on State St. The horses became frightened and bolted southbound. Fortunately for the couple Harold Stock was in the area and quickly reacted and caught the horses and brought them to a stop. The lucky couple was not injured by the wild ride – just a bit shaken.
There are also several examples where horses were frightened by the breakage of equipment associated with the buggy or wagon. In March,1926 Will Husfeldt was driving a coal wagon on State St. for J.H.Patterson and Co. A bolt fell from the whiffletree of the wagon and frightened the horses. A frantic Husfeldt tried to bring the team under control and for his efforts he was thrown to the street and the rear wheel of the wagon ran over his ankle resulting in a painful injury. The terrified horses continued pulling the rider-less wagon at a high speed southbound on State St., and eventually stopped themselves at their home - the J.H. Patterson and Co. barns.
Another problem with a whiffletree frightened the horses of Marengo’s longtime blacksmith, John W. Arlington, on the evening of May 13, 1911. Arlington, his wife, their daughters, and a grandson were in a carriage east of Union when one of the whiffletrees came loose and fell against the back leg of one of the horses. The frightened animal bucked and shook the carriage causing the tongue to fall to ground which resulted in the carriage tipping over. All of the passengers were thrown from the carriage. Arlington managed to grab the horses and wrestle them free from the carriage. The occupants were badly bruised, but no one seriously injured; and all were driven back to Marengo in the much safer mode of transportation – an automobile. The horses were eventually located near Huntley – about 10 miles from the scene of the accident. Ironically, Arlington survived this terrible accident only to be killed in an auto accident in Coral in May, 1921.
The way I see it, these carriages, buggies, and wagons were autonomous vehicles. The stories are examples of what happens when there are two brains on board; that of a driver and a horse. For over a century now man alone has been operating vehicles – not always perfect, but an argument can be made that probably much more safely than in tandem with a horse. So before we go and put another brain--that of a computer-- on board our vehicles we should slow down a bit and ponder the past!