Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Earliest Electric Vehicle Adopters: Women in Corsets

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of press these days, from the Nissan Leaf to the Tesla S. They drink not one drop of gasoline, are themselves emissions-free (though the source of the electricity may not be), and are nearly silent but for the sound of rubber tires rolling along the road. While these things appeal to tree-huggers and tech geeks alike, there were even earlier early adopters: the rich urban ladies of the early twentieth century.

When automobiles were first invented, ruling the road was a bit of a free-for-all. In the early decades of the 1900s, automobile ownership in the Northeast was divided almost evenly into three types of vehicles—gasoline-powered, electric-powered, and steam-powered—and they were all outnumbered by horses. No matter what made the cars go, horseless carriages were expensive toys for playboys. They were used for entertainment, not work, and were kitted out with fine fabrics and exterior flourishes on bespoke bodies. Rich people had to come up with things to do with their cars, like racing them or entertaining inside them.

Even early on, gasoline-powered combustion engines were gaining the upper hand. Cars with gas engines could travel far and fast, which was as appealing in 1905 as it is now. Electric cars used battery technology that was in place until only very recently, when lithium ion batteries got cheap enough to use en masse to power a car. For about a hundred years, electric cars could travel about 60 miles on a charge, as long as you didn’t drive too fast, or up too many hills, or in the cold. Even your great-great-grandfather had range anxiety.

But then, as now, electric cars were clean and quiet, and as a bonus in the early 1900s, they didn’t have to be hand-cranked to get them started. Gasoline cars belched smoke and fire and odors straight from hell. As many hand-wringers and pearl-clutchers of the day noted, drivers were sitting on top of an explosion when driving a vehicle with a combustion engine.

The pluses and minuses of electric vehicles worked together to make the perfect car for the ladies, who were deemed by the conventional wisdom of the day to be weak, fearful, and easily upset. Not only would women not have to deal with the brimstone of the gasoline engine, but they couldn’t go very far—another bonus! The limitations of the electric car made it appropriate transportation for the curtailed life of the pre-flapper woman. She didn’t even have to drive herself to the polls to vote yet.

That was enough for many lady drivers of the day. “My electric is a friend of which I stand in constant need for little morning spins in the park, for calling and shopping, for matinee, and for dinner and theater, and it never fails me,” one woman told the New York Times in 1915. The article noted that there were “seventy-three women in Manhattan alone who own and run electric automobiles,” and then it listed most of their names.

The article also noted of electric cars that a woman “could run it almost the first time she stepped into it, too.” Advertisements showing that electric cars were so easy to use that even women could do it were popular, kind of like those old Geico ads with the cavemen. Even Clara Ford, wife of Henry, had two electric automobiles, though the Ford Motor Company didn’t manufacture an EV of its own until the 2013 Ford Focus Electric.

Lest you think that type of marketing is equally caveman-like, note that Nissan took the same tack when introducing its New Mobility Concept vehicle in Yokohama, Japan, in February 2013. This little two-seater all-electric cart was built to navigate the narrow streets of suburban Japan and is “perfect even for mom.” Almost exactly like the ladies of 1915, the seven women testing these vehicles over two weeks would “shop, take kids to the train, and entertain."

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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