Mary Ward was the first person to be killed by a vehicle that we would recognize as a car. The 150th anniversary of her death was August 31, 2019.
She lived in Ireland, raised some children, and published scientific work about entomology and the wonders of microscopes, a developing field at the time. You can read a beautifully illustrated work she wrote, called A World Of Wonders Revealed By The Microscope here (since it’s now public domain).
Her life ended when she was thrown from a car by a jolt and run over by it. The Wikipedia account of the story does not provide who was actually driving the car at the time, but if you go and read the source article that documents the inquest (trial), you can find that the one driving was her husband, “and also that there was no blame attaching to any person in connection with the occurrence.”
Accidents happen, it’s true. And the jury may well be right with their verdict of a ‘blameless accident’ that there is no need to punish a person further who has just lost their spouse. But in this inquest I see the beginning of a pattern: car deaths are out of the hands of the people who are operating the vehicles. There is “a jolt”, which has no source, and she is out of the vehicle and suddenly the vehicle itself has run over her, the law of inertia + the steam engine’s operating + a pothole = a blameless accident.
Suddenly, when a vehicle is involved, we give it the agency that makes us say “well, the car just up and threw her out of the car and then ran her over”, like there wasn’t a set of decisions being made by humans doing things that lead to the situation where at the end of the day, Mary is dead. Cars become acts of nature, like tornadoes or hurricanes or earthquakes.
When we invented cars, people began to organize their lives around these pieces of heavy machinery that dominate our lives, and the pollution and waste and death and destruction that arise from these soulless hunks of metal are just accidents, no one to blame, the people involved mourn and grieve and the next week are at the lot buying a new car.
Because the way we arrange our lives isn’t our fault, it’s the car’s fault.
Powerful. Thank you.
Better vehicle design would have almost certainly prevented that first automobile death. Seat belts were not yet invented and the car may have not even had a door..
I am sad to learn of Mary Ward’s death, but I am thankful that you wrote this piece. Browsing through her book was so enjoyable – those illustrations are beautiful, and make me want to get out a microscope and look at some stuff.
This car-centric world that we’ve built for ourselves isn’t the “way things have to be,” and I’m glad that so many people are working to make things better, especially here on streets.mn!
Human adaptability is a blessing (in many essential ways, or we wouldn’t be here to talk about it) and a curse, as things like this example quickly become naturalized. Learning about the resistance that did exist to the changing allocation of space in the street over the early years of cars’ existence is helpful to see that all aspects didn’t happen overnight.
Thank you! It’s incredible how much we accept the status quo as inevitable and invisible.