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No. 1271:
The Longest Race

Today, an incredible, and nearly-forgotten, race! The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1907 the automobile was a handmade machine that traveled roads meant for horses. Writer J. M. Fenster tells how, that year, a Paris newspaper announced a great automobile race from New York to Paris. No, I didn't say airplane, I said automobile. Lindbergh's flight lay 20 years in the future.

The Paris paper specified a route westward from New York to San Francisco. Then a steamer link to Valdez, Alaska. Drive across Alaska. Another steamer over the Bering Strait. From there, the cars would make the daunting trip across Asia and Europe to Paris.

Six cars accepted the challenge -- one each from Germany, Italy, and the United States. Three from France. The 20,000-mile race began in Times Square on February 11th, 1908. That was to get the cars across Siberia before it melted into summer mud. Each car carried three or four riders, piles of gear, and 200 or so gallons of gasoline. Spare parts and fuel would be brought along by railroad trains or dogsleds, depending on where the cars were.

Crossing New York in the winter was the first test. A French car gave up in a snow bank after only 44 miles. The American car, a Thomas Flyer, shoveled ahead. The German team, led by a serious army officer under scrutiny of the Kaiser himself, soon lagged far behind. People at each whistle stop celebrated as contestants arrived. Then they charged outrageous prices for food and lodging.

The Americans got to Alaska first and found conditions were impossible. After an exchange of telegrams, officials changed the route. Now the cars were to get from Seattle to Yokohama by ship, across Japan, and then over to Vladivostok by sea.

The cars finally gathered at Vladivostok, waiting to be restarted in the correct order. The Germans had made part of the American crossing on a train. As a penalty, they were to start 15 days after the Americans. But they bolted ahead. Other teams hesitated when they heard stories of bandits in China. One dropped out.

The Americans finally reached Vladivostok and took off after the Germans. They drove like men possessed while the Germans drove railway beds in violation of the rules. The Germans finally reached Paris in July, after 165 days on the road. They were hailed winners until the Americans arrived four days later. Then the Americans were hailed as the winners. No matter, there was no purse. The race ended when the Italians reached Paris that fall.

What are we to make of a race that averaged little over a hundred miles a day? Well, before people would invest in roads, they had to know those rugged new machines could go anywhere.

When I first drove across America 46 years later, I did it in four days. By then we had the roads that would never have been built without theater like this now-forgotten -- and seemingly impossible -- automobile race.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Fenster, J. M., The Longest Race. American Heritage, November 1996, pp. 64-77.