Horsepower In Context

By now we all know the importance and value of recycling, right? Right. Except when wrong. So, to be clear in case my occasional thoughts of science writing as a career go somewhere: I am in a course that requires my written reflection on some amazing books and articles related to environmental history. Raxa Collective, whose blog I have been contributing to since mid-2011, has asked me  to recycle some of that work for the sake of its readers.  Agreed.  I hope we are all right, alright?

First, one thing I am learning in university is that it is never too late to review literature. Some posts on this site point to evidence in favor of that idea. Ann Greene’s Horses at Work is just a few years old (whereas Swerve is a review of poetry from millennia past) but is already part of a canon: it made the cut for this course.

It follows draft horses through nineteenth century industry, and examines the shifting views and uses of equine power, as well as changes in the horses themselves. By explaining the great dependence humans—especially those in America, where she focuses her argument—had on horse power, Greene attempts to display the extent to which horses were considered a “useful art,” or “technology,” in the nineteenth century. These living machines, Greene argues, while often considered “nature” or at least the opposite of technology, were the drivers of almost every aspect of American industrialization in the nineteenth century.

Railroads, canals, and steamboats all relied on horses to provide the freight and people for transport on their rigid tracks. Railroads and canals also used horse power for their actual movement in the early decades of their development, as steam engines were still too dangerous and inefficient to be cost-effective. Even when the steam engine did become reliable enough for widespread use, it was only profitable for long-distance hauling, and increased the short-distance need for horses. Greene shows the incredible presence of equine-driven technology in urban areas by demonstrating the crippling effect the Great Epizootic of 1872-3 had on cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.  This unprecedented animal epidemic that affected horses in thirty-three states (there were only thirty-seven states in the Union, so this was not trivial) effectively shut down urban life, and was as powerful as “every teamster, worker, and municipal employee” going on strike at once.

Greene assesses the differing opinions of the populace on various draft animals— primarily oxen, horses, and mules, with a brief foray into camels—and demonstrates why horses became the choice worker in the wide variety of settings it served. Horses shared the brunt of Civil War wagon transportation with mules, but moved most of the artillery and almost exclusively carried the cavalry. Some farmers used oxen for the more steady and tiring farm work, but often this was only if they already owned a horse for transportation, because one simply did not ride into town on an ox.

But despite the fact that they “defined the economy” and “were indispensable and irreplaceable as industrial workers,” eventually another technology became preferable to horses. Looking mostly at the opinions expressed in the popular magazine Horseless Age, as well as Progressive ideals and sentimental views of horses like those spread by Black Beauty, Greene tries to show why horses started to be seen as inefficient, dangerous, and unsanitary; unpredictable brutes instead of the organic machines that built nations, as they had previously been.

I may or may not have more to say on this, but given the time constraints of university life I will stop here and see whether there is an interest in hearing more.

2 thoughts on “Horsepower In Context

  1. Pingback: Treatments of the Frontier « Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: 205 Years Ago On This Date | Raxa Collective

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