The true reason for the birth of the Internal Combustion Engine

My current business life deals with the painful transition from the internal combustion engine to the electric powertrain.

Advocates of the statu quo cry buckets of tears over the lost jobs, the threatened competitivity of the western automotive industry, the diminishing prospects of cherished industrial skills, the industrial threat of China to mention but a few of the current, querulous lamentations.

Historically speaking, however, this is not the first time this industry underwent such a profound transformation – and for exactly the same reasons, as we will demonstrate.

At the end of the nineteenth century, London was the largest metropolis in the world, its population of over 4 million dwarfing New York and Beijing.

As it turns out, there were over 300,000 horse carriages in the city of London, needing therefore over 300,000 horses.

As the father (and longtime sponsor) of a youngster who spent 20 years competing in show jumping, I have a clear memory of what it takes to look after horses: feeding them, shoeing them but most of all … dealing with manure!

A beautiful 400-kilo horse will gift its owner with about 25 kg of manure PER DAY! This means that the over 300,000-strong London equine population deposited about 7,500 tons of the product on its streets every day, making manure a 2,7 million tons-per-year problem!

I am sure the roads in Mayfair were spotless, but the rest of the city lived with walls of the stuff piling up to waist height. The situation had gotten so bad the well-off had started to leave London, until technology came to the rescue.

As we all know, the first “horseless carriages” were electric, but the immaturity of the electricity transport network and the immediacy of the gasoline proposition made sure mr. Benz’ invention (the internal combustion engine, or ICE, patented in 1887) prevailed instead, to the point in 1910 the number of “horseless” already equated “horsed” in New York.

The rest, as they say, it’s history.

So the first technology transition in automotive was driven by the need to resolve a rather mundane issue which made life miserable for everybody:

1880’s2020’s
the incumbent techhorsesICE cars
drops too much refusemanureGHG gases
in a common resourcecity streetsthe atmosphere

Sounds familiar?

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