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Speed cameras were foretold in 1894 (by the richest guy to die on the Titanic; he also patented a bicycle brake)

JohnJacobAstorColonel John Jacob Astor was an interesting chap. Stinking rich, too. He was one of the wealthiest men of America’s Gilded Age. Educated at Harvard, he thought highly enough of his own literary talents to write a science fiction novel. This was published in 1894, a year before H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Astor’s book was not a best-seller, but some of his predictions – like those of H.G. Wells – are startling to modern eyes. He predicted that, by 2000 A.D., there would be high-speed magnetic railways, space travel, television, ground-penetrating radar, nuclear weapons, 500-mph aeroplanes, an end to hunger thanks to solar power mills in the Sahara, and the world would be ruled by America and England. Oh, and he foretold the invention of speed cameras, “kodaks mounted on tripods” used to catch “electric phaetons” exceeding 40mph. Like Wells, Astor also painted a world where there would be a great many bicycle paths.Automobile Club of America logo 1900

The 48-year old Astor sank with the Titanic in 1912, as did his manservant, although his 18-year old pregnant wife survived. Known as Jack, and noted for his love of motoring – he owned 20 cars at time when owning one was rare enough – Astor was one of the earliest members, and richest benefactors, of the Automobile Club of America, a high-society hang-out for automobile pioneers.

The original Waldorf-Astoria. 1904 sketch by tricycle touring artist Joseph Pennell.

The original Waldorf-Astoria. 1904 sketch by tricycle touring artist Joseph Pennell.

The Automobile Club of America – later to become part of the American Automobile Association – was originally a gentlemens’ club modelled on the even posher Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, founded in 1897 (ACGB&I added the Royal bit, and shortened its acronym to RAC, when King Edward VII joined in 1907). The Automobile Club of America was launched at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel in October 1899 (half of the hotel was owned and built by Astor; the Empire State Building stands there today). Of the twenty or so individuals who met for the inaugural meeting, some had been cyclists. At least one – Charles Ranlett Flint, the fabulously wealthy founder of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which became IBM – had been a consul of the League of American Wheelmen bicycle club. Isaac Potter, president of the League of American Wheelmen and publisher of the League’s Good Roads magazine, was an early member of the Automobile Club (while still an active cyclist, he had founded the American Motor Association in 1895, which he claimed was “the oldest and largest organisation of automobilists in the world”). The first motorists were not from a different class to the cyclists of the 1890s, they were often the exact same people. Cycling was rich mans’ transport in the 1880s and much of the 1890s.

LAW_logo_high_resIn 1896, Astor joined the League of American Wheelmen. He renewed his membership every year until at least 1900. Clearly, he didn’t give up on cycling when he joined the Automobile Club of America. It’s also clear that Astor was a cyclist long before 1896 for, in 1889, he patented a bicycle brake. This was for a solid-tyred Safety bicycle. Bad timing, Jack. Solid tyres would soon be thrown on the scrapheap of history thanks to the pneumatic tyre, developed for bicycles by Belfast veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop.

Astor’s patent for a bicycle brake, no. 417,401, stated:

Astor Bicycle Brake patent 1889

“Be it known that I, JOHN JACOB ASTOR, Jr, of the city, county, and State of New York, have invented a new and Improved Bicycle Brake…It is well known that the soft-rubber tire of a bicycle-wheel, which is circular in cross-section when first applied to the wheel, soon becomes worn in use, so as to present a flat zone to the bicycle-brake….To obviate this difficulty and to provide a brake which will adapt itself with equal advantage to either a new or a worn tire is the object of my invention.”

Four years later Astor submitted another patent application, no doubt inspired by his love of bicycling. This was a blower for pushing dust and detritus out of the way of road users, such as cyclists. Victorian cyclists agitated for better roads long before motor-cars came along. The patent, no. 514805, was granted in February 1894.

pneumatic road cleaning machine Astor 1894

“My invention relates to an improvement in machines for cleaning streets or roads…leaving the road for a major portion of its width free from any loose material….as the machine is carried along the road, the bed of the road will be completely cleared of dust, or any light or loose foreign matter lying thereon, by means of the air blast emanating from the bellows. It is also evident that without injury to the road bed the light foreign matter or loose particles of dust lying thereon may be blown from the road bed in direction of or into the shrubbery or over the fences along the line of the road, leaving the road bed intact, and that the operation of cleaning is accomplished both expeditiously and conveniently.”

Strangely, Astor didn’t relate how his shrubbery-defiling dust-blower would be propelled. It had neither pedals nor an engine. It was probably never built. It’s not as though Astor needed his inventions to be commercially successful: his inherited wealth saw to that.

His inherited wealth also meant he had time on his hands; time in which to write a future-predicting novel about a Journey-to-the-Centre-of-the-Earth-style adventure of high-society chaps hunting mastodons on the lushly vegetated planets of Saturn and Jupiter and where, on Earth, “smart electric traps, or phaetons” are driven by chauffeurs (“A man in livery stood at the step of the phaeton. Ayrault got in and turned on the current, and his man climbed up behind.”)

Astor Giant Tortoise

A Journey in Other Worlds;: A Romance of the Future has its odd moments, such as riding on giant tortoises. And its Christian imperialism mixed with a dash of spiritualism is disturbing.

Astor’s story was set in the year 2000. The protagonists are soldiers, socialites and scientists working for the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company, intent on adjusting the Earth’s axial tilt in order to equalise global temperatures. Astor’s spaceships are powered by “apergy”, a miraculous anti-gravitational energy force, as used by Jesus Christ to walk on water and a forerunner to H.G. Wells’ non-religious Cavorite from 1901’s The First Men in the Moon. According to an encyclopaedia of science fiction, Astor’s novel was the first to use the term ‘spaceship’. And no tubes of space food for our 21st Century heroes: while in their wooden-panelled spaceship they feasted on “canned chicken soup, beef a la jardiniere, and pheasant.” When on Jupiter they grilled “thick but tender slices from the mastodon” but preferred “well-fed birds” which they would “roast, broil, or fricassee…to a turn.” Jupiter, it turns out, was a “sportsman’s paradise.”

I’ve extracted some of the best bits of the novel for your reading pleasure but it’s available in full, for free.


A Journey In Other Worlds John Jacob Astor“Come in!” sounded a voice, as Dr. Cortlandt and Dick Ayrault tapped at the door of the President of the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company’s private office on the morning of the 21st of June, A. D. 2000. Col. Bearwarden sat at his capacious desk, the shadows passing over his face as April clouds flit across the sun. He was a handsome man, and young for the important post he filled – being scarcely forty – a graduate of West Point, with great executive ability, and a wonderful engineer. “Sit down, chappies,” said he; “we have still a half hour before I begin to read the report I am to make to the stockholders and representatives of all the governments, which is now ready…

Prof. Cortlandt, LL. D., United States Government expert, appointed to examine the company’s calculations, was about fifty, with a high forehead, greyish hair, and quick, grey eyes, a geologist and astronomer, and altogether as able a man, in his own way, as Col. Bearwarden in his. Richard Ayrault, a large stockholder and one of the honorary vice-presidents in the company, was about thirty, a university man, by nature a scientist, and engaged to one of the prettiest society girls, who was then a student at Vassar, in the beautiful town of Poughkeepsie.

OK, so that’s the setting and the main protagonists of the novel. Chapter four has a scientist ‘chappie’ telling an audience about the advances in science that had been made since 1900 to 2000, with Astor extending the use of some existing technologies and imagining some of his own. The following headings are mine, the text beneath the headings is all his.

The audience became greatly interested, and when the end of the telephone was applied to a microphone the room fairly rang with exultant cheers, and those looking through a kintograph (visual telegraph) terminating in a camera obscura on the shores of Baffin Bay were able to see engineers and workmen waving and throwing up their caps and falling into one another’s arms in ecstasies of delight.

Further mechanical and scientific progress, however, such as flying machines provided with these high explosives, and asphyxiating bombs containing compressed gas that could be fired from guns or dropped from the air, intervened. The former would have laid every city in the dust, and the latter might have almost exterminated the race. These discoveries providentially prevented hostilities, so that the ‘Great War,’ so long expected, never came…

Adequate and really rapid transportation facilities have done much to bind the different parts of the country together, and to rub off the edges of local prejudice. Though we always favour peace, no nation would think of opposing the expressed wishes of the United States, and our moral power for good is tremendous.

The several hundred square miles of land and water forming greater New York are perfectly united by numerous bridges, tunnels, and electric ferries, while the city’s great natural advantages have been enhanced and beautified by every ingenious device. No main avenue in the newer sections is less than two hundred feet wide, containing shade and fruit trees, a bridle-path, broad sidewalks, and open spaces for carriages and bicycles. Several fine diagonal streets and breathing-squares have also been provided in the older sections, and the existing parks have been supplemented by intermediate ones, all being connected by parkways to form continuous chains.

Steam-boilers are placed at the foci of huge concave mirrors, often a hundred feet in diameter, the required heat being supplied by the sun, without smoke, instead of by bulky and dirty coal. This discovery gave commercial value to Sahara and other tropical deserts, which are now desirable for mill-sites and for generating power, on account of the directness with which they receive the sun’s rays and their freedom from clouds. Mile after mile Africa has been won for the uses of civilization, till great stretches that were considered impassible are as productive as gardens.

Light but powerful batteries and motors have also been fitted on bicycles, which can act either as auxiliaries for hill-climbing or in case of head wind, or they can propel the machine altogether.

Another change that came in with a rush upon the discovery of a battery with insignificant weight, compact form, and great capacity, was the substitution of electricity for animal power for the movement of all vehicles. This, of necessity brought in good roads, the results obtainable on such being so much greater than on bad ones that a universal demand for them arose. This was in a sense cumulative, since the better the streets and roads became, the greater the inducement to have an electric carriage. The work of opening up the country far and near, by straightening and improving existing roads, and laying out new ones that combine the solidity of the Appian Way with the smoothness of modern asphalt, was largely done by convicts, working under the direction of State and Government engineers.

The electric phaetons, as those for high speed are called, have three and four wheels…With hollow but immensely strong galvanically treated aluminum frames and pneumatic or cushion tires, they run at thirty-five and forty miles an hour on country roads, and attain a speed over forty on city streets…

Gradually the width of the streets became insufficient for the traffic, although the elimination of horses and the consequent increase in speed greatly augmented their carrying capacity, until recently a new system came in. The whole width of the avenues and streets in the business parts of the city, including the former sidewalks, is given up to wheel traffic, an iron ridge extending along the exact centre to compel vehicles to keep to the right. Strips of nickel painted white, and showing a bright phosphorescence at night, are let into the metal pavement flush with the surface, and run parallel to this ridge at distances of ten to fifteen feet, dividing each half of the avenue into four or five sections, their width increasing as they approach the middle.

All trucks or drays moving at less than seven miles an hour are obliged to keep in the section nearest the building line, those running between seven and fifteen in the next, fifteen to twenty-five in the third, twenty-five to thirty-five in the fourth, and everything faster than that in the section next the ridge, unless the avenue or street is wide enough for further subdivisions. If it is wide enough for only four or less, the fastest vehicles must keep next the middle, and limit their speed to the rate allowed in that section, which is marked at every crossing in white letters sufficiently large for him that runs to read.

There is a gauge on every vehicle, which shows its exact speed in miles per hour…The policemen on duty also have instantaneous kodaks mounted on tripods, which show the position of any carriage at half- and quarter-second intervals, by which it is easy to ascertain the exact speed, should the officers be unable to judge it by the eye; so there is no danger of a vehicle’s speed exceeding that allowed in the section in which it happens to be; neither can a slow one remain on the fast lines.

Of course, to make such high speed for ordinary carriages possible, a perfect pavement became a sine qua non. We have secured this by the half-inch sheet of steel spread over a carefully laid surface of asphalt, with but little bevel; and though this might be slippery for horses’ feet, it never seriously affects our wheels….Our streets also need but little cleaning; neither is the surface continually indented, as the old cobble-stones and Belgian blocks were, by the pounding of the horses’ feet, so that the substitution of electricity for animal power has done much to solve the problem of attractive streets.

Pedestrians have sidewalks level with the second story, consisting of glass floors let into aluminum frames, while all street crossings are made on bridges. Private houses have a front door opening on the sidewalk, and another on the ground level, so that ladies paying visits or leaving cards can do so in carriages. In business streets the second story is used for shops. In place of steel covering, country roads have a thick coating of cement and asphalt over a foundation of crushed stone, giving a capital surface, and have a width of thirty-three feet in thinly settled districts, to sixty-six feet where the population is greater.

‘Magnetic eyes’ are of great use to miners and Civil engineers. These instruments are something like the mariner’s compass, with the sensitiveness enormously increased by galvanic currents. The ‘eye,’ as it were, sees what substances are underground, and at what distances. It also shows how many people are in an adjoining room–through the magnetic properties of the iron in their blood–whether they are moving, and in what directions and at what speed they go. In connection with the phonograph and concealed by draperies, it is useful to detectives, who, through a registering attachment, can obtain a record of everything said and done.

Telephones have been so improved that one person can speak in his natural voice with another in any part of the globe, the wire that enables him to hear also showing him the face of the speaker though he be at the antipodes.

We can build an airtight projectile, hermetically seal ourselves within, and charge it in such a way that it will be repelled by the magnetism of the earth, and it will be forced from it with equal or greater violence than that with which it is ordinarily attracted.


“Where should you propose to go?” asked Stillman.

“To Jupiter, and, if possible, after that to Saturn,” replied Ayrault

One thought on “Speed cameras were foretold in 1894 (by the richest guy to die on the Titanic; he also patented a bicycle brake)

  1. PurpleCyclist / Reply November 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    Clearly the wheel has gone full circle, thanks to this research we can link the car back to the bicycle and give the bicycle its due!

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