Stop and smell the horsepower

Jules-Albert, Count de Dion finished first in a steam powered De Dion tractor towing une Calèche, but was not eligible for the prize. Among the passengers are the Count de Dion, Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt-Rothschild, and writer Émile Driant (Wikipedia) Are we there yet? Despite being profoundly skeptical about the overall impact of modernity, I struggle to resist the recurrent thought that if only my gadgets were a little bit better many of life’s kinks would be smoothed out. For instance my computer takes rather a while to render complex video files… which is an outrage until I reflect that two computers ago it couldn’t render them at all. Honestly there’s some serious horsepower under the hood these days.

So to speak. And literally. I don’t even know what horsepower my car has but it’s certainly a lot more than King John ever had hooked up to his wagon or carriage or whatever he rode in. Or Julius Caesar. It’s very probably more than the total number of horses King John owned including the ones he stole. (I Googled and it’s well over 200 hp. I don’t know how many horses John stole in his life but I was thinking of at one time.)

That 200+ figure is also a lot higher than the winning car in the first ever car race in France, held on July 22, 1894 between Paris and Rouen. We’re now so used to idiots street racing that it’s hard to remember that it was once a novelty and there weren’t “streets” in our sense.

Nevertheless various intrepid souls undertook, indeed had to get through a qualifying round to undertake, the 126 km contest. In fact 102 people paid the modest 10 franc entrance fee, of whom fully 78 didn’t show up for the July 18 qualifier thus missing a chance to be immortalized in their “gravity-nine” powered vehicle, quadricycle or other hopeful monster.

In the end 21 cars roared across the starting line and 17 the finish line of what was possibly the first car race ever, though the organizers insisted it was a contest not a race. Indeed, first to finish (successfully) was le Comte de Dion but his steam car was disqualified because it needed a stoker and the contest was, reasonably, intended to showcase cars that were easy and economical to drive. Oh, and not unreasonably dangerous. And the steam car with a stoker just wasn’t easy enough.

With the Comte disposed of, the winner of the race was Albert Lemaître, whose gasoline-powered Peugot boasted a mighty 3 horsepower engine. And the organisers were mighty pleased, awarding it and the 3rd-place finisher, also a Peugot, a half-share in the top prize for the car coming closest to the ideal, while the 4th and 5th place finishers designed my MM. Panhard et Levassor got the other half.

Nowadays we’d be powerfully offended by a lawnmower with less than a 3 horsepower engine. And we curse and bang the steering wheel as we sit in traffic in our air-conditioned behemoth cars with no stoker in sight. But if they were just a bit more powerful, the roads a bit wider and more capacious, the… the…

I still want a more powerful computer, though. Not a whole lot, you understand. Maybe an i7. Another gigahertz or so. A bit more RAM. We’re nearly there. I think.