The early automobile was certainly the disruptive technology of its time. In fact, we can learn a lot about today’s Bitcoin industry by observing how the nascent car industry was able to overcome many obstacles to become today’s dominant form of transport.
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‘Menace to Public Safety’
At the start of the 20th century, the car industry was a barren landscape lacking any regulation and infrastructure such as roads, gas stations, signs etc. In other words, drivers or “auto enthusiasts,” as they were often called, were pretty much on their own. This should sound familiar to anyone who has ever been “Goxxed,” bought some sketchy virtual coins or came across some unverified crypto “investment opportunity.”
As adoption increased between 1900 and 1910, automobile enthusiast “clubs” started popping up all over the US, much like the Bitcoin meetups of today. Collectively, these clubs became the American Automobile Association (AAA), founded in 1902.
This period was also a time when the fledgling industry faced its biggest challenges and push-back from legacy interests and many regular people, particularly in rural areas.
Without paved roads, an automobile would kick up dust and smoke as it sped by dumbfounded bystanders at a whopping 30 miles-per-hour. They also made a lot of noise and broke down frequently. But the scariest part was that the machines posed a physical threat to anyone else on the road from, pedestrians and chickens to bicycles and horses.
In fact, long before Bitcoin doomsayers, a 1920 public warning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin read:
The automobile as a death dealing instrument was unanimously decided upon as the greatest present day menace to public safety.
The public had be protected against this new menace.
Backlash & Automobile Regulation
Red Flag Laws were a common policy in late 19th century England and the US, which required “self-propelled vehicles” to be led by someone waving a red flag (or a lantern) to warn of a vehicle’s approach.
In 1894, the state of Vermont passed its own Red Flag Law, after which similar laws in Memphis, New Orleans and Alabama allegedly required a flagman whenever a woman was driving the vehicle.
Some of the most absurd proposals came out of Pennsylvania. They were popular at the time, though, since one bill was passed unanimously by both state legislature houses in 1896. It required all motorists piloting their “horseless carriages,” upon encounter with cattle or livestock, to:
- immediately stop the vehicle
- immediately and as rapidly as possible disassemble the automobile, and
- conceal the various components out of sight, behind nearby bushes until equestrian or livestock is sufficiently pacified.
Some regulators wanted to go even further. A group called the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania proposed several additions, including:
- Automobiles traveling on country roads at night must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. The driver may then proceed, with caution, blowing his horn and shooting off Roman candles, as before.
- If the driver of an automobile sees a team of horses approaching, he is to stop, pulling over to one side of the road, and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover which is painted or colored to blend into the scenery, and thus render the machine less noticeable.
Luckily, this bill never became law, shot down by the governor’s veto. Nevertheless, the anti-car movement was a real thing that lasted until 1930, when the US reached more than twenty cars for every hundred people, or about one per family.
The book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, details this period in history noting the hysteria and fear fueled by the anti-automobile movement.
For example, if a child was killed by a car, bells would toll eight times in Detroit, while in Memphis, black flags were placed at the sites of crashes. In Cincinnati, a proposition to mechanically limit cars to 25 miles-per-hour was included in and election ballot. It was also common to see drivers depicted as Satan and the Grim Reaper in cartoons, posters and parade floats.
Hmm…where have we heard that before?
Early 20th century attempts to strangle the automobile in its cradle certainly seem amusing in retrospect. Nevertheless, we’re seeing the same forces in play today.
For example, New York state has imposed its own regulations on Bitcoin, requiring businesses to similarly wave their “BitLicense” before transacting with Bitcoin. Consequently, while a couple of well-funded companies have complied, the majority of startups left for greener pastures.
Bitcoin is also pseudonymous, removing identity and friction, making transacting online faster while eliminating the possibility of identity theft. But not so fast! Authorities and law enforcement all over the world are scrambling to link cryptocurrency addresses to real life identities as we speak.
Likewise, autos didn’t get any help from the media back then either, much like Bitcoin today. In 1904, a German motor journal (think Bitcoin.com today) slammed the press’s reference to “automobile accidents” even when the car was not the cause:
The noble horse, despite all its virtues still stupider than a motorist, remains untouchable, although it has been proved a hundred times that horses and horse-drawn wagons cause more accidents that automobiles.
In 1912, an Italian auto magazine once again noted the bias:
Horses, trams, trains can collide, smash, kill half the world, and nobody cares. But if an automobile leaves a scratch on an urchin who dances in front of it, or on a drunken carter who is driving without a light, then woe to the motorist.
Remember when Bitcoin was a major tool in funding terrorism according to the press but not really? Yes, the culprit is still cash dollars while Bitcoin can actually be used to help fight crime, according to the Internet Watch Foundation.
So are we going to paint Bitcoin users as criminals? Check.
Force them to shoot “KYC rockets” into the air before transacting? In progress.
How about requiring them to hide their QR-codes and Bitcoin T-shirts if they’re within 50 feet of a bank? Too much?
But hey, if all fails, there’s always the blockchain component to divert attention from the real groundbreaking invention, as Bitcoin guru, Andreas Antonopoulos, recently pointed out sarcastically:
We looked at the auto, but we didn't see a use case. Not enough roads or gas stations. So we decided to focus on the real promise of “tires”
— Andreas (@aantonop) July 3, 2016
Do you see similarities between the two disruptive industries of their time? Let us know in the comments section below!
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