Elon Musk is not the only visionary that saw the future in electric cars. Before Elon and Tesla there was visionary tycoon William C. Whitney, who was the owner of the Electric Vehicle Company, which designed and built electric powered automobiles for his taxi cab company. Not only that, but this happened two centuries ago, on May 14, 1899!
Electric Vehicle Company cabs, circa1899
On that day, a 26 year old cab driver named Jacob German was arrested in New York City for speeding. And what was his offending speed you ask – he was charged with doing the blistering speed of 12 MPH in an 8 MPH zone!
Although this seems ridiculous today, back in 1899 and even though the early 1900’s streets were not solely for the operation of motor vehicles. Back then, there was no such thing as jaywalking. Streets were used by horse drawn carriages and bicycles. Streets were places where people strolled and kids played. In fact, in the early days when cars became more common there was an epidemic of children being killed in pedestrian accidents, and for a time the automobile was vilified as a killing machine.
The story of Jacob German’s historic arrest doesn’t end there. We must ask, who was this intrepid police officer who made this historic arrest, and how did he come to develop the evidence against our unfortunate pre-uber driver operating such a technological marvel? This is the stuff of lore. You see, there was another first in this story. Mr. German, the very first person ever arrested for speeding in the United States, was arrested in the first speed trap!
Having no radars, speedometers, or other speed measuring devices, the police had to come up with another way to measure speed of a vehicle. Enter one officer John Schuessler of the NYPD bicycle squad, the predecessor to the NYPD’s famed highway and motorcycle patrol unit. By the time of his 1899 speeding arrest, Officer Schuessler was already a legend. An undated New York Times Article details Officer Schuessler’s exploits:
“He is 27 years of age, weight 180 lbs., height 5’11 1/2″ tall…Schuessler figured in many rescues, captures of runaways, and other events, more than any other member of the force…”
Some of those exploits include single handedly chasing and capturing a spooked horse “owned by Mr. Quackenbush,” that had thrown the occupants of the carriage and smashed the buggy to pieces. The struggle to control the horse led to Officer Schuessler suffering two fractured ribs and a badly bruised back which required 5 weeks of bedrest. In another capture of a spooked horse at Columbus Circle, Officer Schuessler was injured when the horse slammed him into the monument. The article also credited Officer Schuessler with saving the lives of two children and an adult from a building fire in December of 1896.
All of this horse wrangling and life saving aside, Officer Schuessler really loved to catch speeding bicyclists. It was his thing. He was so feared in biking circles that he was known as “The Scorcher’s Terror.” But, how to know whom is in violation of the 8 MPH speed limit?
Apparently, Officer Schuessler had brawn and brains. Officer Schuessler marked on the roadway two points and measured the distance between them. Then, he would time bicycles and vehicles as they traversed the known distance. Once you know the time it takes to cross a known distance the rate of speed can be easily calculated. This is the method by which Officer Schuessler busted cabby Jacob German for speeding. The apprehension was made by Schuessler chasing down German on his bicycle.
Back in 1899, the traffic ticket was already in use in England, but had yet to be in use in the United States. Officer Schuessler made a custodial arrest, and Jacob German spend the night in jail. This was big news of the day, as the New York Times published an article about the arrest:
The moral of the story: so long as there have been cars and cops there have been speeding and speed traps. When you get caught speeding, be grateful that the cops now just give out tickets. And call us – we can help!