Daily Lab: “Get a horse!”

New tech, old stories

Daily Lab: “Get a horse!”

It’s easy to think that the car was immediately popular. That people quickly saw the benefits and eagerly made the switch from organic transportation to mechanical.

But, no.

It turns out that early adopters of the automobile were risk-takers, both physically and socially.

The first cars were so embarrassingly bad that, in 1895, a spectator at an automobile race was heard to yell, “Get a horse!”

A few years later, in 1899, the legendary copywriter Claude C. Hopkins got the gig to write a pamphlet called The Sport of Kings to advertise steam-powered automobiles.

Here’s how he told the story in his autobiography:

“I remember nights on muddy roads when we watched the water gauge go down. At a certain point we knew the boiler would explode, but we kept on going to shorten our walk back home. There are pleasanter experiences than sitting on a boiler on a gloomy night waiting for it to explode, and contemplating the long muddy road ahead.”

When that’s what the paid promoter thought about the product, it’s a wonder it ever caught on.

As Daniel Yergen tells it in The Prize, it took until 1906 for “a leading journalist” to write “that the automobile ‘is no longer a theme for jokers, and rarely do we hear the derisive expression, “Get a horse!”’”


More than a decade into the life of the automobile and people were still openly mocking it in the streets.

Even the Model T, which we imagine to be a consumer-friendly product, well, wasn’t. The narrator in East of Eden reminds us that early cars “required not only a good memory, a strong arm, an angelic temper, and a blind hope, but also a certain amount of practice of magic, so that a man about to turn the crank of a Model T might be seen to spit on the ground and whisper a spell.”

Whisper a spell!

But people eventually realized that, on the whole, cars were cheaper and easier to maintain than horses—and that meant a lot more things could get done that had previously required horse power.

Look, I’m not a car person and I’m not saying cars are even necessarily a net good (that list of technologies is probably pretty short).

I’m only saying that the unreliability of  new technology isn’t predictive of its popularity.

So when I hear somebody say that a new technology—like, say, AI—doesn’t stand a chance because it barely works, it’s too finicky, or it’s too unreliable, what I sometimes hear is actually:

“Get a horse!”

What do you hear?

This post contains 100% organic content, no generative AI was used in its creation.