Book of the week: A Brief History of Motion by Tom Standage

Tom Standage is “one of our best writers of non-fiction”, said Howard Schneider in The Wall Street Journal. His “niche” is the history of technology – but always with one eye on the future. When he finds the right subject, as he did in his 2013 book Writing on the Wall, about the “roots and repercussions of digital communication”, the results are scintillating.

His latest work – a history of wheeled transport – may not be quite his finest, but it is still richly rewarding. He starts at the beginning, with the advent of the wheel (probably in Eastern Europe in around 3500BC), and then traces its astonishing impact on human history.

Key milestones include the emergence of the chariot, near the Black Sea in around 2000BC, which revolutionised warfare, and of steel-spring horse-drawn carriages (in Kocs in Hungary, hence “coach”) in the 15th century. Inevitably, the story becomes busier as it approaches the present: the early 19th century saw the birth of the steam carriage and the steam train, and then of course came the car – the most transformational vehicle of all, and “the crux” of the book.

Ironically, the car’s great appeal in the early days was as a means of reducing “pollution and congestion”, said James McConnachie in The Sunday Times. City centres in the late 19th century were crowded, noisy and filthy. By the 1890s, 300,000 horses were living in London, each producing 10kg of dung a day. The stuff “was piled so high that streets became impassable”.

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Cars solved this problem at a stroke. Intriguingly, many of the earliest ones were electric. In the 1890s, an electric taxi service briefly flourished in US cities, and in 1897 the bestselling car in America – the Columbia Motor Carriage – was powered by a battery.

Electric cars lost out to their petrol-powered counterparts because they had many of the problems people still complain about today, said Simon Winchester in The New York Times: they weren’t much good for long journeys; charging was often a problem.

The “automotive age” that followed was indelibly associated with the internal combustion engine – and Standage documents it with “masterly clarity”.

In the final chapter, he considers the future of the car. It’s a pity in a way, because the world he depicts – of self-driving cars, “Ubers everywhere”, drone deliveries, electronic highways – is so dreary. Still, for “fogies like me” who “prefer to recall the lasting charms of the wheeled age”, this “eminently readable” book contains a great deal to fascinate.

Bloomsbury 272pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

Brief History of Motion book cover

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