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Perspective on the road ahead from a long look in the rear view mirror

Bookshelf: ‘A Brief History of Motion’ takes us from the invention of the wheel to where we are and where we are going


Despite what we were taught as we read Johnny Hart’s B.C. cartoon strips in our daily newspapers, a cavemen named Thor did not invent the wheel. Nor did the Egyptians, Chinese or Mesopotamians, writes Tom Standage in A Brief History of Motion.

So who invented the wheel? Citing carbon-dating evidence, it appears the wheel was developed as early as 3,950 B.C. by people living in the Carpathian Mountains of what is now Ukraine. 

However, it was the Romans who devised a way to steer such contraptions and that technology was the further developed in the Hungarian village of Kocs, pronounced “coach,” which popularized such devices as a useful and common  method of transportation.

Book cover

In the early days, coaches were pulled along by animals, but things accelerated with the emergence of engines fueled by steam or petroleum or through the employment of electric batteries and motors.

Among the many fascinating tales emerging from Standagh’s research are those that explain how gasoline rather than ethanol alcohol became the fuel of choice of internal-combustion engines, and how a scandal involving operators of electric-powered taxi cabs all but pulled the plug on electric vehicles. 

Standage is deputy editor of the Economist and author of previous  historical examinations, including A History of the World in 6 Glasses and An Edible History of Humanity.

In Motion, he also writes about how the hamburger replaced the hot dog as the favored form of fast food for American motorists, and of the impact of the automobile on American culture, and its cities and suburbs.

But, he also writes, “cars are no longer associated with freedom” in the way they were for previous generations, that role shifting to the smart phone, and accelerating as we learned during the pandemic that we not only could shop by phone but that many of us work from home instead of commuting to an office.

Standage looks not only through the rear-view mirror but the road ahead through the windshield, to ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles and to what he calls “the internet of motion.”


A Brief History of Motion

By Tom Standage

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

ISBN 978-1-63557-361-9

Hardcover, 246 pages


Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


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