Electric buses and a turn-of-the-century villain


in The environment, Travel

Czech Embassy plaque, Ottawa

Back when new technologies were just beginning to threaten the horse in urban transportation, a scam unrelated to the underlying technology may have set back electric vehicles, relative to their internal combustion counterparts. So posits this article in The Economist’s Technology Quarterly, in any case.

Between 1907 and 1909, electric buses traversed the streets of London. The company that built them was eventually driven to bankrupcy by the machinations of Edward Lehwess: “a German lawyer and serial con-artist with a taste for fast cars and expensive champagne.” After destroying the ability of the company to raise capital, he bought eight of the twenty electric buses for £800, then sold them to Brighton for £3,500.

At the very least, this demonstrates the ability of non-technological factors to significantly affect the fate of new innovations. At the most, it makes one wonder whether a more sustainable form of public transport could have gained dominance over the last century, to the benefit of the climate and those breating urban air.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing September 17, 2007 at 1:57 am


this post confuses me deeply. You do know that many, many north american cities had electric streetcars until the 1950s, when the right of ways were purchased by auto companies who shut them down? This isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s commonly held fact. Of course it is possible that the 20th century could have been more sustainable – but hey, there were people who had to sell things. That’s important!

Milan September 17, 2007 at 8:27 am


I don’t see how the Great American Streetcar Scandal, which took place about forty years later, makes the above story a less interesting one.

The bus incident was from the very dawn of motorized public transport – from before internal combustion buses were even a viable option. As the article explains, at this point in time, ICE buses only lasted a matter of months. These electric buses ran for years.

Tristan Laing September 17, 2007 at 8:42 am

I really think it does make the story less interesting. Streetcars and electric buses are like different kinds of blackberry jam. The only difference being that streetcars require even more infrastructure (although the overhead wires for electric buses are not cheap – ask Translink why they arn’t restoring trolley service along Cambie). Streetcars, however, are more comfortable to ride on (as anyone in toronto can tell you) and last somewhat longer (although not enormously so. I believe they cost more extra than they last longer.)

I generally disagree with you that this rogue champagne drinker is outside the realm of ordinary “technological forces”. He is driven by the profit motive, as was General motors when they dismantled streetcar systems. He needed to destroy the ability of this bus company so he could sell their buses at a high profit, whereas GM needed to destroy streetcar systems to sell their cars at a high profit.

Anonymous September 17, 2007 at 3:00 pm

Another Peak Lite Endorsement
Lord Oxburgh, the former chairman of Shell, has issued a stark warning that the price of oil could hit $150 per barrel, with oil production peaking within the next 20 years.

He accused the industry of having its head “in the sand” about the depletion of supplies, and warned: “We may be sleepwalking into a problem which is actually going to be very serious and it may be too late to do anything about it by the time we are fully aware.”

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