On the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy

The demise of streetcar systems like this one in Los Angeles was probably not due to their being bought out and shut down by car companies. Picture from the Huffington Post.

When I tell somebody about my research, they often bring up the alleged General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, a popular folk-tale in the history of American transport. The story goes something like this: At the early twentieth century, virtually every major North American city had a streetcar system, which was basically a lower-tech version of what still exists in a few cities such as Toronto and San Francisco. These systems posed a problem for the rapidly expanding car industry, and so a few car companies (most notably General Motors) bought out many local streetcar systems and immediately shut them down, in order to push the United States towards dependency on the private automobile.

Now I’m just a lowly PhD student, and my research focuses on intercity transport rather than urban transport. So there are many people more qualified than me to comment on whether or not this actually happened. What I can do is point to a few of these people and the arguments they make.  An excellent paper to read if you’re interested in this history is Zachary Schragg’s The Bus is Young and Honest. According to Schragg, the elimination of the New York City streetcars was more due to the bad reputation then held by streetcar companies than to any shady dealing by automobile executives. Like most forms of private transport infrastructure, New York’s streetcars functioned essentially as a monopoly. While some legislation tried to counteract this, for example by legally imposing a fare of a nickel, the streetcars did pretty well for themselves in the nineteenth century. Most people could not afford their own transport, and so anybody who wanted to travel within the city would have basically no choice but to accept the terms offered by the streetcar companies.  This caused resentment among those who thought a nickel was too much to pay for what was often a crowded, dangerous ride. Basically, The New York City streetcars were like the Comcast of their time.

The public got their comeuppance in the 1920s and 1930s, however, as inflation continuously cut down the value of the five cent fare and streetcar companies struggled to balance their books. Streetcar companies mounted a campaign to have the fare changed to a dime, but much of the public and political establishment was uninterested in helping an industry that had been so happy to exploit them when the shoe was on the other foot. When the mayor flatly refused their request for a fare increase, the streetcar lines cancelled several lines services to put public pressure on the mayor. The mayor’s response was to replace the streetcars with buses. And that was the beginning of the end for the New York streetcars.

Of course, Schragg’s account only covers New York City. But in my opinion it is far more likely that the demise of the American streetcar was due to this kind of local politics than that it was due to the conspiratorial actions of car manufacturers. Cars were already gobbling up huge chunks of passenger travel by the start of the 1930s; the United States did not need any extra push into car dependence. Furthermore, my own research has revealed that the pattern Schragg describes played a role in long-distance transport as well. American railways in the early twentieth century were monopolies, and like the streetcars, the public and the political classes often saw them as monopolistic, exploitative, and generally untrustworthy. This eventually resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1920 was given veto power over any railway fare increases. This was absolutely crippling during the Great Depression, when the railways, faced with competition from the roads, couldn’t even adjust their fares without a lengthy series of government hearings. but when they tried to change the law to be more favourable, many of the railways’ complaints fell on deaf ears.

This seems to be a very common pattern: Privately owned infrastructures tend to be monopolies and so they often arouse public anger. This leads to regulations restricting the actions of the companies owning those infrastructures, but the public anger continues. As soon as a new and exciting technology whose problems are not yet widely understood provides a viable alternative to those monopolies, the regulations make it very difficult for the old system to compete, while the distrust of the people who own the old system makes it very difficult for them to get the regulations changed.

So no; General Motors probably did not buy out the streetcar systems in order to push the country towards car dependency. But that doesn’t doesn’tean that the story is not still interesting as a folktale. Why does it still have so much lasting power?

I think it has something to do with portraying our present-day concerns about technology into the past. Today, the car-based transportation system is not in a very strong discursive position. It is not a monopoly like the railways of the past, but it has still aroused concern and condemnation due to things like climate change, local air pollution, congestion, accidents, road rage, noise, and the bulldozing of neighbourhoods to build highways. To put it bluntly: the moral status of our transportation system is not very good right now. But people seem to have trouble understanding that the moral status of technological systems can change over time. People who are opposed to the car system today tend to assume that the only way such a system could have come into being in the first place is by some kind of trickery. Similarly, railroads and municipal light rail have a pretty good reputation these days, and so when people note that they used to be more dominant, it’s assumed that their downfall must have been due to foul play. Whence the popularity of the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy theory.  

The true story, that cars and buses might have actually looked like a pretty good idea in the 1930s, while trains and trams had a nasty reputation, is less appealing not only because it requires more nuance, but also because it has implications for the present day. If the Americans who so eagerly dashed towards a car-culture in the 1930s were so mistaken about it, then what does that say about the new kinds of infrastructure that get us excited today? It means that we might have to think much more carefully about replacing our existing technological systems with things like drone delivery, Google fibre, or 3D printing. It means that we need to be sceptical of anybody offering a quick technological fix to our problems today. We can still support radical new technologies, but only after a great deal more thought.


Visibility Politics: Why polite traffic stops are far from innocuous.

Last Wednesday, I noticed on twitter that the police in Warwickshire have been stopping cyclists to talk about visibility on the roads. This was intended to be an entirely non-punitive thing; officers engaged the cyclists in a polite discussion about the importance of visibility, gave them a free reflective armband, and sent them on their way.

It sounds pretty innocuous at first glance, but it had cyclists up in arms. Here are some replies that were made to the BBC coverage of the stops:

And here are some tweets reacting to the news:

Cyclists and cyclist organisations tend to bristle at suggestions that they dress more visbily. They tend to accuse police and other authorities that make such suggestions of victim-blaming, and point out that there actually isn’t much of an empirical case for the usefulness of high-visibility cycle gear. But to many people, this might seem bizarre. What could possibly be so objectionable about being more visible? Apart from being pretty much the tackiest thing imaginable when worn off a bike, a fluorescent yellow vest isn’t a massive hardship. And even if its actual utility is disputed, surely it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? Why would you want to put yourself at even the tiniest increased risk of an accident?

Superficially, to somebody who does not ride a bike and does not understand all the nuances of transport safety politics, these arguments make a lot of sense. But as is often the case with these things, they oversimplify the situation. In this post, I’m going to try to explain why visibility campaigns are misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. I can approach this issue as a cyclist who steadfastly refuses to wear high-vis gear, but also as an historian of transport: The history of transport shows that these apparently well-intentioned safety campaigns can have surprisingly elaborate political implications.

Illustration by Swedish artist Karl Jilg. Courtesy of Vox.

I’m going to start with the above image. It’s a clever way of depicting the dearth of space available in a city to law-abiding pedestrians. But how did we get here? After all, streets have been around for a lot longer than cars. And indeed, even at the turn of the twentieth century, when the earliest cars were already being driven in cities, urban streets were a crowded mess of pedestrians, cyclists, streetcars, playing children, livestock, and the occasional automobile:

This picture, from Manchester Evening News, depicts a downtown Manchester street in 1914. Note the mixed use of the road, and the comparative freedom of pedestrians compared to today.

Anybody who is intersted in the politics and history of transportation and urban space should pick up a copy of Peter Norton’s excellent book, Fighting Traffic. It details exactly how American cities went from looking like the picture above to the car-dominated cities depicted in the cartoon. The historical facts in this post are taken from that book.

It turns out that well-meaning (or at least apparently well-meaning) safety campaigners have a lot to do how cars took over the city. When cars first appeared and began driving on on urban roads, the result was a lot of deaths. Pedestrians and, particularly tragically, children, were accustomed to being able to use the streets as they pleased, without having to look out for large metal vehicles passing by at high speeds. When that behaviour was combined with motorists’ desire to drive quickly, the results were tragic. This caused a public outcry against motorists, and various urban institutions began to look for solutions to the problem.

The first few solutions attempted to balance the rights of cars with those of other road users, while still ensuring that traffic flowed smoothly. This made a lot of sense at the time-cars were a recent innovation and mainly a recreational machine for the rich. So urban authorities, including police, safety advocates, and a new cadre of traffic control engineers, set about restricting motor vehicles so that they would fit in safely with the rest of the road users. Speed limits, curbside parking bans, and even mandatory speed governors were proposed as a way of “taming” the automobile, and a few of these were implemented and have survived to the present day.

This, however, did not suit drivers and their political lobby, who saw these restrictions as an attack on their freedom. And so they began an intense public relations campaign to push pedestrians off the road. A crucial element of this was the invention of a new word: “Jaywalker”. According to contemporary American slang, a “jay” was roughly defined an ignorant country person who did not know how to behave in a city. By combining this with “walker”, to describe pedestrians who crossed the road not at a crosswalk, motor interests were able to redefine a traditional right of pedestrians as evidence of idiocy. Jaywalking was not illegal at first, but the motor organisations used some very creative tactics to popularize the idea that pedestrians no longer belonged on the street. In one case boy scouts went around, stopping jaywalkers and handing out cards demonstrating the new safe way to cross the street at an intersection. In one particularly dramatic case in 1913 in Syracuse, New York, a man in a Santa suit used a megaphone to yell at jaywalkers he spotted. The implication was that jaywalking is unsafe and stupid, and that cars demanded new ways of being in the street. These tactics were roughly analogous to the polite approach now being taken by British police to encourage high-visibility gear. But it became more coercive over time. By the 1920s, cities had begun passing anti-jaywalking laws, and the ancient customs of the street were being rewritten to better accommodate cars.

Car organisations also set up road accident information services, whose representatives would investigate car accidents, take notes on them, and relay their information to the press. This, of course, allowed them to selectively interpret the facts of these accidents as being the fault of pedestrians, cyclists, or other road users. These victims often had no opportunity to talk back, because they were dead. And by promoting these framings, car advocates were eventually able to change popular conceptions of the street to be more favourable to them and their members.

The point of all this history is to illustrate that even the politest and most diplomatic of safety efforts still have a political implication: They inevitably present a particular interpretation of a safety threat, and by doing so, they propose the most effective ways of dealing with it. Car accidents, according to the 1920s motor lobby, were not the fault of cars on city streets, or of insufficient traffic laws, but of pedestrians and other road users who were unwilling to adapt their behaviour to new technology. By framing the problem in this way, they framed the solution: Other road users should give way to motor vehicles. And so the great urban chasm depicted in the above cartoon began to open.

So stopping cyclists to talk about visibility is far from a neutral act. It reinforces the SMIDSY excuse for accidents: “sorry mate, I didn’t see you”. It gives motorists an excuse to not look for cyclists quite as much as they otherwise would. And it downplays other possible ways in which the problem of drivers not seeing cyclists could be addressed. Here are a few possible alternative measures that emerge if you frame the problem as being the fault of drivers rather than of cyclists:

  • Write laws that negate SMIDSY as a mitigating factor in traffic prosecutions. Motorists are responsible for being aware of their surroundings.
  • Build more cycle lanes, and enforce the existing lanes more effectively: Drivers don’t have to worry quite so much about seeing individual cyclists if they recognize that a certain part of the road are off-limits to them.
  • Use these kinds of polite traffic stops, but target them at motorists as well. Find some way to test how well motorists are looking out for cyclists, and use that as a basis to encourage them to look out more.
  • Public relations campaigns emphasizing that motorists are responsible for seeing cyclists, regardless of what they are wearing.

This post is not intended to demonise drivers. Most drivers, I expect, do keep their eyes peeled for cyclists. But there enough of them that do not that we should be concerned about normalising that by shifting the burden onto the cyclists themselves. So hopefully this gives some explanation of why I steadfastly refuse to wear a neon yellow vest. Because the high-vis vest is essentially the “jaywalker” of the twenty-first century. It uses safety concerns to argue for a certain conception of the rights and responsibilities of urban space.

Why e-bikes make me nervous

A few years ago, while riding my bike along the Don Valley cycle paths (a gorgeous urban cycle route that any cyclist in the area should check out), I was, to my confusion, passed by a man who couldn’t have been younger than 60 riding a rickety old bicycle without even pedalling that hard! Furious at this affront to my honour as a cyclist, I gave chase. Keeping pace with him for a few minutes was just about all I could manage. Frustrated and confused, I eventually noticed the high-tech looking plastic box sitting on the frame of the man’s bike. I had been racing with somebody who had the extra benefit of an electric motor. This was my first encounter with the increasingly popular phenomenon of the e-bike.

In principle, e-bikes are a fantastic development. Cycling is an excellent means of alternative transport: It is sometimes faster than cars, it is certainly healthier and more sustainable, and switching to cycling might even make you happier. But cycling does involve a certain amount of privilege. To use a bicycle as a useful way of getting around, you have to be reasonably able-bodied and fit, and you have to live in a city where the distances and grades are manageable. E-bikes eliminate some of these requirements; allowing people to use bicycles who may not otherwise be physically capable of doing so. And even if the argument can be made that e-bikes are not, strictly speaking, active transport, their status as very light-weight electric vehicles means that their contribution to climate change will be minuscule, even compared to that of an electric car.

The problem, however, emerges with the fact that very few technologies remain static. E-bikes are a relatively new development, and like most other new technologies, we can expect them to change considerably as they become more popular, and as the people who make them have more money to pay engineers and inventors to improve them. E-bikes currently exist as a kind of bricolage combination of cell phone batteries and bicycle technology, but they will evolve. And what they evolve into may force us to rethink what actually constitutes a bicycle.

Notice how it still has pedals.

This has, in fact, already happened in the case of motorcycles. A brief glance at wikipedia demonstrates that motorcycles are about as old as cars. These early motorcycles were literally motor-cycles: cycles with motors on them. Attach a motor and an extra stabilizing wheel to a penny-farthing, and voila! You’ve got a motorized vehicle. Motorcycles thus have a completely separate genaeology from that of the car, which was initially conceived as a horseless carriage. If you are at all familiar with e-bikes, then this should start to sound familiar.

1910 FN

A 1910 Fabrique Nationale motorcycle.

To make a long history short, motorcycles continued to look like bicycles for some time, and as bicycles became more sophisticated, so too did motorcycles. Gradually, the pedals disappeared, to be replaced with a stronger engine which in turn required a sturdier frame. Motorcycles began to diverge from their pedal-powered cousins. By the 1930s, motorcycles had taken on a distinct form of their own, with almost all signs of their pedal-powered history expunged in favour of more power, speed, and durability. And these, in turn, gave rise to the high-speed crotch-rockets that can often be seen in flagrant violation of speed limits today.

A 1920 Indian Powerplus.

A 1930 “Squariel” motorcycle. By now, almost all signs of its bicycle ancestry are gone.

This is a very crude history, mostly culled from wikipedia, so you shouldn’t take it as authoritative. My expertise is cars, trains and (occasional) aircraft; not motorcycles. But you only have to look at the pictures to see the clear trend: The metaphor of biological evolution is actually a very good one to describe the development of motorcycles and many other technologies besides: A mutation (innovation) caused one small population (motor bicycles) to diverge from a parent species (pedal-powered bicycles), at which point it was subjected to a different set of selection pressures (a different user base), and gradually diverged to become something completely different.

As with biological evolution, the question of when a new species actually emerged is a purely subjective one-a crucial consideration when we consider the future of e-bikes. At this stage, there is no reason why e-bikes should not be allowed in the bike paths and bike lanes that make cycling a safe and enjoyable means of transport for so many people. We could justifably be accused of ableism or age discrimination if we did not allow them to use these spaces. But e-bikes, like motorcycles before them, will almost certainly evolve into something distinct from bicycles. They could become faster and dangerous for the slower cyclists around them. But at their point their riders may not take kindly to being pushed off of the bike paths they have become accustomed to using. Indeed, e-bike technology will likely evolve based on the assumption that they will be used in these spaces. The possible outcome could be that what was once bike paths will become a kind of second-tier road, dominated by electric motorcycles on which pedal cyclists will be, once again marginalized.

This might not happen. Technological development is impossible to predict. But we do need to acknowledge that, one way or another, the technologies we use today will change into something else. And as they do so, the social practices and political structures that have built up around them might not change with them, or at least might not change in a way that resolves the problems caused by changing technology. Laws and habits are much harder to modify than bicycle frames. That means that when we think about how to integrate e-bikes and other new technologies into our society, we need to consider not only how they are, but also how they will be.

The Ideological Nature of Transportation

The British Public were so excited about the motorways in the 1960s that they printed postcards of service stations. The railways had a hard time competing in this modernist cultural environment.

Here’s an interesting  fact to mention next time you hear somebody railing against railway subsidies: During its entire history of operation since it was created in 1970, Amtrak, the American public passenger rail network, has received less in subsidies than the American highway network receives in a single year. Amtrak’s total subsidies since 1972 are estimated by the Cato institute (which has every reason to overestimate them) at around $13 billion, while the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association cites federal highway investment at around $40 billion per  year for at least the last few years.

This shouldn’t really be seen as paritcularly damning either of Amtrak or the highways, because it’s a pretty well-recognized fact that good transportation networks need subsidies. I have yet to encounter a single form of mass transportation that can be profitable on its own. Cars, trucks and buses need roads, and the various fuel taxes and fees paid for by drivers generally don’t cover the costs of building, maintaining and policing them. Trains are virtually always subsidized. Aviation is massively subsidized, with airlines receiving government bailouts fairly frequently. With the possible exception of active transportation such as walking and cycling (and even cyclists need roads), there are probably very few modern transportation networks don’t receive some money from the taxpayer.

One obvious implication of this is that we shouldn’t be pointing to subsidies to argue against the usefulness of particular modes of transport-something that critics of rail are particularly guilty of. But this has another important implication, namely that transportation infrastructures are inherently politicized. Regardless of your political position, you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the government, in its benevolence, wisely considers the methods of transportation available to it and supports the most promising one. Subsidies are doled out at least partly due to political and ideological commitments. And this means that transportation networks are an inherently political and ideological entity.

To take one example from my own research, consider the competition between road and rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. After the Second World War, the British government undertook several projects to repair and update its transport system. On the railways, this took the form of the modernisation plan, which was launched in 1955. The plan was intended to introduce improved signalling systems, electric traction, station refurbishments, and a whole host of other improvements to prepare the newly nationalised British Rail for the demands of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport was also beginning to build the country’s first motorways. Starting with the Preston Bypass and the M1, which ran from London to Birmingham, the country’s modern road network gradually began to take shape. This all happened in the cultural and ideological context of modernism. This was a period of high modernism, when visions of a Jetsons-like future of a rational, efficient, high-tech and technocratic society were extremely popular. This modernism, I believe, played a very important role in shaping the transportation system as it exists today in the United Kingdom.

If  you read discussions about these two programs in both parliament and the press, however, you realize that the public perception of a modernised railway system was not the same as it was for a modernised road system. On the one hand, newspaper columnists tended to aggressively support motorway construction. This support was often based on the idea that the promotion of cars, buses and trucks was an essential part of being a progressive nation in the later part of the Twentieth Century. The Daily Mail put it in 1953, “like it or not, we are in the motor age, and we must make the best use of it” [1]. When the motorway program suffered setbacks, the government weathered a storm of criticism in the press. The Daily Express’s motoring correspondent, apparently not one for subtlety, penned one article about the motorways whose headline was “DREADFUL, DREADFUL, DREADFUL” [2]. Nobody questioned the costs of the project, and almost everybody with a platform seems to have been pressuring the government to make it happen as quickly as possible. The motorways were seen as modern marvels inherently deserving of support and investment

The railway modernisation plan had a very different hearing. While it did get some tentative support in the press, there wasn’t anything near the same pressure to see it through to the end. There were, indeed, many questions as to whether it was worthwhile in the first place. The editor of The Guardian speculated that it would be “…an unfortunate economic waste if, for example, the modern diesel trains now coming into service should fail to pay by 1970 because people had taken to their cars” [3]. One phrase that comes up again and again in the discussions of railway modernisation is the phrase “nineteenth century”. Increasingly, the railways were seen as an obsolete nineteenth century transport system when measured against the motorways and the cars that drove on them. The result was that when the financial situation got a little bit tighter, the modernisation program was curtailed and eventually gave way to the Beeching cuts, which eliminated more than half of Britain’s railway network in an attempt to make it profitable. The cuts got more support in the press than the modernisation, and that the phrase “nineteenth century” continued to be repeated by journalists supporting Beeching’s plans. The Daily Mirror, for example, proclaimed that “The plan for making Britain’s 19th century railway system fit snugly into the second half of the 20th century will impress the travelling public by its inescapable logic—and shock them with its ruthlessness” [4]. Many people saw the railways as an old-fashioned system, a relic of the previous century. And this meant that it was only logical to dramatically scale it back while motorways were being built.

To put it more simply: The railways were an easy target, and the suffered financial cuts as a result. The public and the press insisted on having motorways, while they were much less enthusiastic about the supposedly old-fashioned railway network. The ideology of modernism played a big role in this. Whether they drive on the motorways or travel on the scaled back railways, Britons today are living out the legacy of 1950s and 1960s technological ideology.

What this says for the present day is that we need to be very explicitly conscious of the role of ideology in the present transportation system. Cars are seen as the embodiment of freedom, individuality, and masculinity, and that supports continued public investment in roads. But cars are also increasingly seen as dangerous, antisocial, polluting machines. The clash between these two understandings of today’s transportation system will have important implications not only for tomorrow’s transportation system, but also for the global environment.

Primary Sources

[1] The Daily Mail., 1953. “Money for the Jam.” The Daily Mail. 24 July 1953. P. 1.

[2] Cardew, Basil., 1956. “Look, Mr. Watkinson! Look at this!”. The Daily Express. 24 February, 1956. p. 4.

[3] Savage, C.I., 1958. “What future for the railways? Next Few Years Decisive.”. 29 April, 1958. P. 11

[4] Beechcroft, J., and Morton-Smith, 1963. “The Railway Revolution”. The Daily Mirror .28 March, 1963. p. 15

A brief history of music piracy, and why it may be a good thing

This warning might just be standing in the way of technological progress.

I did a presentation a few months ago music piracy, and some interesting historical facts came up that I think are pertinent to the endless debate on the subject. Typically, this conflict is understood to be a highly adversarial one between the music industry and its consumers. In our research, we decided to take a transitions theory approach to the problem; specifically to see what lawbreaking can mean for innovation. The historical evidence on this is surprising, and it reveals some important facts about copyright infringement that have not been adequately considered.

It turns out that music copyright is actually a very novel institution, relative to the history of music generally. Up until the 1770s, artists could expect to have their music copied, re-arranged, shipped across the pond, performed, copied again, shipped back home, and re-arranged once more. They had no right to any recompense from this, and it was understood to simply be a part of the music business that they had to deal with. Romantic notions of authorial genius made such practices illegitimate with the first copyright laws, but these laws were usually ineffective. Near the turn of the twentieth century, home pianos created a massive demand for cheap sheet music, which certain individuals were more than happy to dater to, thanks in part to the invention of lithography. To combat this, sheet music companies had to resort to extra-legal measures including raiding the pirates’ houses while police looked the other way. Their findings in these raids eventually allowed them to frame piracy as a criminal conspiracy, facilitating the passage of harsher anti-piracy legislation. But this still had a limited impact and the sheet music companies were eventually forced to reduce their prices to compete with the pirates.

Since that early conflict, piracy has been pretty much a constant presence in the music business, as have the recording industry’s quixotic attempts to eliminate it. While pirates were generally able to get away with their piracy at almost every turn, the recording companies did score one important victory, namely the gradual development of the legal system around music copyright, which turned a legal structure that didn’t even exist at the turn of the century into something quite coercive. Widespread bootlegging of records during the 1960s and 1970s, for example, prompted the music industry to lobby for the Rome Convention, which made unauthorized copying of music illegal. Later, the invention of the easily copyable cassette tape lead to the passage of even stronger anti-music piracy laws in the United States, but these explicitly allowed for home copying so as to preserve the legality of mix-tapes. In 1992, the record industry actually managed to completely block a new innovation-the Digital Audiotape-due to its ease of creating high-fidelity copies of music.

With our 20/20 hindsight, we might dismiss the blocking of digital audio-tape appears as a half-measure which would be completely ineffective in the face of the massive disruption represented by the internet. For all its importance, however, the internet took a while to get itself noticed by the record industry. In fact, a stream of dot-com boom entrepreneurs looking to set up digital music services in the 1990s were nearly all rebuffed by the record companies whose intellectual property they needed. One quote from Sony Music executive Al Smith, addressed to one such entrepreneur, is particularly telling of the labels’ attitude: “Look, Kearby. My job is to keep you down. We don’t want you to succeed”. Smith’s message is clear: Sony and the other recording companies were comfortable with the music distribution system they had set up, and were not interested in adapting to new technology.

And then Napster happened. In the midst of today’s heavy-handed approach towards piracy, it is easy to forget that the illegality of piracy was far from a sure thing at the turn of the millennium. Remember: existing American law explicitly made non-commercial copying legal and while Napster did intend to be a commercial enterprise. While it provided the infrastructure, Napster itself never copied any music. Napster expected to win the lawsuit, and to establish themselves as a legitimate business making money off of merchandising and concert advertising.

Of course, this all collapsed when they eventually lost. While Napster was succeeded by a veritable parade of imitation services, such as Kazaa, Limewire and Bittorrent, another major development was in the works that would expand Napster’s legacy beyond piracy into the very structure of legitimate music distribution channels. That development was iTunes. Today, Steve Jobs gets a lot of credit for being the impetus behind the technical aspects of iTunes and the iPod, but he still needed access to the intellectual property held by the record labels in order to establish the service. It turns out that Napster had considerably softened the labels’ position on online music from the blunt dimissals of Al Smith a decade earlier. In fact, the music industry was so desperate to get some kind of cut from online activity that they actually gave Jobs a very favorable good deal on royalties. And that negotiation opened the floodgates for online services such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, CDBaby, and YouTube. It occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century almost exactly as it had at the turn of the twentieth: illegal copying forced powerful industrial interests to *ahem* face the music.

This history tells us three important things about music piracy. The first is that by forcing sheet music producers to lower their prices, piracy at the turn of the twentieth century actually assisted in the realization of market efficiency. The second is that the laws that support the recording industry against pirates were, perhaps unsurprisingly, largely the creations of that same recording industry. This implies that they were intrinsically tied to a music distribution system based on the sale of physical objects such as LPs, cassettes, and CDs. Thirdly and perhaps more importantly for my case, without online piracy there was no economic incentive for the recording industry to embrace the internet.

Does this mean that the music industry has no genuine ethical right to defend their intellectual property against pirates? Not necessarily. In fact, it depends on what you believe to be the real legislative purpose of music copyright. If you think copyright is an absolute and inalienable right afforded to artists and the companies representing them, then none of this history matters; criminals who violate the absolute rights of citizens should be punished. Alternatively, however, you might see music copyright as a strategic policy tool designed to incentive creativity. If this is the case,  then piracy may very well be justified on the grounds that it has on multiple occasions forced the record industry to adapt to new innovations, both technological and musical, when they might not otherwise have done so.

The nature of copyright is a philosophical question on which this post will remain agnostic, but there is one further point to be made from this history. The history of piracy and the recording industry has implications for technological transitions of all sorts. If the law is understood to be a part of a socio-technical regime as this case suggests it should be, then law-breaking can be a crucial means by which new technologies succeed in the market and transform systems and societies. To put it more bluntly, we may well be indebted to criminals for more than just our online music services. And that’s a fascinating thought.

Further Reading: 

Borfe, L., 2004. Where have all the good times gone? The rise and fall of the record industry. London: Atlantic Books.

Gronow, P., and Saunoi, I., trans. C. Morley., 1988. An International History of the Recording Industry. London: Cassell.

Johns, A., 2009. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Tehranian, J., 2011.  Infringement Nation: Copyright 2.0 and You. London: Oxford.

From World Wars to Bush Planes: Some Reflections on The Future of Commercial Space Flight

There’s a lot of excited talk about spaceflight these days. The successful completion of the X-prize challenge by SpaceX and the subsequent launch of Virgin Galactic has a put lot of space geeks in a very optimistic mood about the future of private, civilian space-flight. Perhaps within you or your children’s lifetime, it will be both possible to visit an orbital or lunar hotel. Even if that is beyond your price range, you might still wind up using quick orbital hops to make trans-continental business trips in a fraction of the time taken by a jet airliner. The technology is all there, say the space-age optimists. It just has to come down in price.

Of course, if “It just has to come down in price” suspiciously like somebody’s famous last words. The path from an effective technology to mass use by society is far from a simple one. While I am very excited by the prospect of commercial spaceflight (I want to play golf on the moon), the history of technology suggests a critical perspective towards the possibility.

What we essentially have with space-flight is a completely new technological function which allows forms of consumption that are completely impossible without it. On the one hand, this helps space entrepreneurs, because what they offer is so completely different from any other consumer product that they will have to compete with any existing industries. On the other hand, it also means that they will have to build a customer base from scratch, which is not always an easy thing to do with an unproven technology. To understand better how this process occurs, it would be worthwhile to look at another example of a radically new technology that was successfully introduced to the market.

To that end, I want to draw your attention to the Silver Dart, which was basically Canada’s answer to the Wright Flyer. It flew for just half a mile in 1909. That same year, it was able to complete a circular flight of around 35 kilometers, and shortly afterwards it successfully flew with a passenger. These accomplishments are impressive, but the Silver Dart, like most aircraft of the time, was more novelty project than business venture. It was never intended to fly with paying customers. In fact, the only way that pilots ever managed to make any money in Canada before the First World War was by performing acrobatics at fairs. Flight at this time was a technological novelty used mainly by the rich.

Things became very different very quickly after the First World War. Bush flying became a commercial pursuit, with pilots reaching places in the Canadian hinterland that could previously could only be reached by canoe and dogsled. Government and corporate surveyors began to use planes to document the natural resource wealth of the Canadian North, and during the depression a series of airstrips was built to link the country from coast to coast. Air services were also being established in Britain, Australia, and the United States. And those are just the countries I have researched. Planes had, in short, became a profitable proposition in a very short time.

So what happened? Well, in Canada, at least, this happened:

The HS-2L Flying Boat


The Curtiss HS-2L flying boat was ubiquitous in the early years of Canadian bush flying. While it was designed for practical use and was therefore an improvement over the Silver Dart, the specific practical use it was was designed  for was submarine hunting. This meant that it had some major drawbacks when it was pressed into civilian use. Its large wingspan made docking  difficult, and it had to be periodically lifted out of the water or its hull would get waterlogged. Despite these problems, however, the HS-2L is commonly thought of as the aircraft that kick-started commercial flight in Canada. This had nothing to do with the technological sophistication of the aircraft, and everything to do with the fact that hundreds had been built for a war effort that was now over. This meant that an aspiring commercial pilot could get his hands on a surplus flying boat for very cheap. The glut of unemployed pilots returning from the war created a class of entrepreneurs ready to take advantage of this opportunity, and so Canadian air industry was born. This dynamic was not limited to Canada: surplus war aircraft and pilots were similarly central in the creation of the American, Australian, and British air industries. This was strengthened even further after the Second World War and its more advanced aircraft opened space for the air industry as we know it today.

Let’s return to space, then. Each of the two examples above shows that a major global event, namely war, was necessary in order for a new consumer technology to become attractive to the private sector. I suspect that the large-scale commercialization of space might require something similar. While Virgin Galactic might show promise , I think that in its current form it fills the same role that was filled by air and car travel around the turn of the century: that of a recreational novelty for the rich. In order for a new commercial space industry to take hold, something will need to spur the construction of large numbers of manned spacecraft, the development of inexpensive launch facilities, and the training of space pilots. Whatever that is will then have to end abruptly, so as to create a surplus of vehicles, infrastructure, and manpower that can be used in a new commercial space industry.


Does this mean that I won’t get to play moon-golf until there is a war in space? Hopefully not. In this case, a war might not even be sufficient, due to the fact that most realistic visions of space warfare don’t involve very many manned craft. There needs to be some other massive, publicly-funded push to get large numbers of human beings into Earth’s orbit, and it has to produce surplus, reusable, manned spacecraft. Perhaps this is a justification for Neil Degrasse-Tyson’s one penny proposal, or an international mission to Mars. Honestly, I don’t know what it will take. Maybe the unique economics of space flight will mean that all but the rich will just have to stay in the atmosphere. If you don’t like that, then start thinking of ways to get massive investment in manned space-flight from the public purse.

Further Reading

Butler, Tom.,1971. Flying Start: The history of the first five decades of civil aviation in Australia. Sydney: Edwards and Shaw, 1971.

Blee, Jill., 2007. Aviation in Australia. Wollombi: Exisle Publishing Ltd.

Fortier, Rénald and Masters, Don., 1996. Flight into History: Canadian Vignettes. Ottawa: National Aviation Museum.

Hutchison, Iain., 1987. The Story of Loganair. Isle of Lewis: Western Isles Publishing Company.

McCaffery, Dan., 2002. Bush Planes and Bush Pilots. Toronto: James Lorimer and Company.

Piggott, Peter., 1997a. Flying Canucks II: Pioneers of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Hounslow Press.

Piggott, Peter., 2002. Wings Across Canada: An Illustrated History of Canadian Aviation. Toronto: Anthony Hawke.


The End of the Automobile?

Is an end to this in sight?

I’m reading a lot of British transportation history these days in order to frame my research, and I have discovered in the process that many books on the subject are a bit antiquated. This can mean that they make hilarious predictions about the future (one proposed jetpacks as a plausible means of future transportation; another suggested hovercrafts), yet their datedness has a bit of value to me as a historian. While they may not reflect the most cutting-edge scholarship, these books can say a lot about the continuing history of the subject by revealing the author’s own prejudices. Such is the case with one 1975 book I am in the process of reading. Its author, Derek Howard Aldcroft, of the post-war era that “…in a period when passenger transport has expanded rapidly, the private road vehicle has swept all before it”. It makes sense that he would write that. In 1975, the growth rate in passenger-miles traveled by car had recovered from a small hiccup caused by the 1973 fuel crisis, and resumed the meteoric rate of increase that had persisted since the end of the Second World War. The use of trains and buses, meanwhile, had done nothing but stagnate and decline over the same period. From Aldcroft’s perspective, then, the long-term triumph of the passenger automobile may well have seemed a near-certainty.

Of course, this would have come as sad news to the fledgling environmental movement that existed in the 1970s, and similar assertions are frequently made today, much to the chagrin of climate activists. But must we agree with Aldcroft? Perhaps we have learned something about the fate of the private car in the last forty-odd-years that Aldcroft may not have anticipated. It’s too big a question to answer adequately in blog form, but I’m going to try and clarify some of the relevant issues a little bit. I’m not going to bring a whole lot of new information to the table-I think that most people reading this will already know the facts I am citing. I am just going to frame the situation in a way that I think is productive for thinking about the question.

First, it has to be noted that the automobile is a textbook example of a strongly entrenched socio-technical regime. There are strong cultural, economic, political, technological, scientific, and infrastructural forces that have become attached to the widespread use of the private automobile, and are not likely to allow it to decline without a fight. Existing sustainable transportation niches are constantly being frustrated by these forces. The fact that many roads were only designed with the safety of motorists in mind deters many people from taking up cycling. In many places, cultural norms strongly encourage the ownership of a car, and discourage the use of public transit. Train systems are unable to expand due to policymakers who are unwilling to allocate the necessary subsidies, while those same policymakers are often happy to spend millions on new highways. Massive urban sprawl makes it difficult to construct walkable communities. Meanwhile, niche-innovations designed to take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as the electric car, are hobbled by the fact that the internal combustion engine has a several-decade technological head-start, and a considerable cultural advantage.

That being said, we would be foolish to completely discount the possibility of a major transportation transition taking place during the next few decades. Strong regimes can be broken up with the appropriate landscape pressures, and there are some pretty important landscape pressures currently acting on the car regime. The most obvious one is political: a lot of people are getting pretty concerned about the environmental impact of cars. Increasing smog problems in major cities and concerns about the environmental costs of fuel extraction, as is the fact that the private automobile has become symbolic of the high-carbon lifestyle practiced in the industrial west. Rising fuel costs are making the private automobile less appealing from a financial perspective than it once was. Congestion is becoming increasingly problematic in urban environments, leading some local governments to apply measures like congestion charging and car-pool lanes, as well as enhancing public transit services. Lastly, the economic crisis means that many people simply cannot afford cars, meaning that they are developing lifestyles that do not require them-a development which is scaring many car manufacturers. All of these things taken together could potentially start to break up the strong socio-technical entrenchment of cars.

So what we have in the case of cars is a strongly entrenched regime holding strong against a few promising niches, but threatened by some important landscape events. This is exactly the kind of situation that has lead to major transitions in the past. The car itself seemed to many to be little more than a fad for rich people at the turn of the century, but as a niche-innovation it had a lot of potential, and when the world wars damaged the railroad regime and changed the industrial structure of Europe and North America, cars were well-positioned to capitalize on that change. This is not, however, a guaranteed outcome. It remains to be seen whether the existing pressures on the car regime will be enough to permit the development of a radically new transport system.

This may be cause for hope. (From The New Statesman)

I am not, of course, an entirely disinterested observer. I am concerned about the effect of cars on urban environments, air quality, and the global climate and I would like to see a more sustainable system replace them within my own lifetime. While I am not sure that this will happen, I can say that some recent evidence gives me reason for cautious optimism. A number of researchers have looked at transportation data from the last decade or so and noticed a surprising phenomenon: it seems as though the trend that Aldcroft noticed, in which car use was rapidly increasing over several decades, began to slow down some time in the 1990s, and may have even started to reverse itself in some places. The use of cars is still an order of magnitude higher than the use of trains, bicycles, and other alternatives, but we may be witnessing the beginning of a change. Whether these statistics truly represent a “peak car” moment leading to a major transition, or a mere blip, resulting from temporary economic conditions. I would ask skeptics to keep in mind, however, that firmly entrenched technologies can and have been brought low in the past. Before the car became popular, railroads were dominant for nearly a century. Before that, the millenia-long history of horse-drawn travel would have made the horse-drawn wagon seem as old and as resilient as time itself. And on the sea, steamships replaced sailing vessels after a comparable historical dominance. All of these systems became considerably entrenched over their long histories, and yet they were brought low in good time. Compared to them, the car’s sixty-year history makes it appear positively fragile. How much longer its history goes on, and how much more entrenched it becomes, remains to be seen.

Further Reading:

Aldcroft, D.H., 1975. “British Transport Since 1914: An Economic History”. London: David and Charles.

Fouquet, R., 2012. Trends in Income and Price Elasticities of Transport Demand (1850-2010). Basque Centre for Climate Change BC3 Working Paper Series 2012-01.

Newman, P., and Kenworthy, J., 2011. “Peak Car Use: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence.” World Transport Policy and Practice 17.2. pp. 31-42.

Sheller, M., 2011. “The Emergence of New Cultures of Mobility: Stability, Openings, and Prospects”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 180-200.

Wells, P., Nieuwenhuis, P., and Orsato, R.J., 2011. “The Nature and Causes of Inertia in the Automobile Industry: Regime Stability and Non-Change”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 123-139.

Zijlstraand, T., and Avelino, F., 2011. “A Socio-Spatial Perspective on the Car Regime”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 166-179.

Ehret, O., and Dignum, M., 2011. “Introducing Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Vehicles in Germany”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 229-249.

Goodwin, P., 2011. “Providing Road Capacity for Automobility: The Continuting Transition”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 140-159.