If you think traffic is slow today, consider that Jacob German was arrested on this day in 1899 for driving at the blistering speed of 19km/h. The speed limit he blasted past? 13km/h between streets, and 6km/h around corners.
He is unlucky enough to be remembered forever, as the New York Times recounted 115 years ago, as “the first man arrested for running an automobile too fast”.
What’s so fascinating about German’s arrest is how utterly strange it sounds today. His offending speed is what we’d consider an unbearably crawl. He was driving an electric car. And he was chased down for speeding by a policeman on bicycle.
In 1899, the streets did not belong to newfangled contraptions called cars. Instead, horses ambled along in front of carriages, people strolled and kids played in the streets. There was no such thing as jaywalking. We had no conception of streets as dedicated fast lanes for cars devoid of people and horses. That’s why the New York Times in 1899 could call 19km/h “breakneck speed” and “so reckless a rate”.
Jacob German, then 26 years-= old, had gotten a job as a cab driver with the Electric Vehicle Company, a taxi service started a few years earlier by a visionary tycoon William C. Whitney. At the time electric vehicles actually outnumbered gasoline ones on the road, and Whitney was going to ride the electric car wave of the future.
“The company was notified, and its members were astonished,” reported the Times after German’s unprecedented arrest. The Electric Vehicle Company, however, soon ran into much bigger problems, as Whitney dreamed too big and expanded too fast. By 1907, the company had gone bust, killing the electric car.
As for German, he was arrested after being tailed by a zealous patrolman on bicycle. John Schuessler of the Bicycle Squad, had already acquired a reputation of “one of the finest” according to the official organ of the League of American Wheelmen. Schuessler had wrestled many a frightened horse and taken down so many speeding cyclists as to warrant the nickname “The Scorcher’s Terror”. A cab driver going 19km/h? Nbd. [New York Times via City Room]
Picture: The first electric cabs in New York in 1897. New York Public Library