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No. 79:
A Car for Ann Boleyn

Today, we offer Anne Boleyn an automobile. 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 1533 a wool-trader named John Marmin, who'd been operating in northern France, was languishing in prison for failing to pay a debt. That year he petitioned Henry VIII to release him. The English historian James Alsop tells us that the practice in those days was to offer a bribe along with such a request, and he quotes these words from Marmin's petition:

... in ... recompense of your goodness towards [me, I] will give unto your mastership a wagon, which will be a gift very meet for the Queen's grace. In the same wagon may sit two persons with ease, and it is to go without horse or other cattle. I suppose it cost 20 angel nobles in Flanders. In doing this you shall do a very charitable deed, and bind [me] to pray for you, [my] life enduring.

What a frustrating little item to find in the dusty records of 450 years ago. This unhappy fellow, wanting to get out of jail, is offering Henry VIII a horseless carriage for his new queen, Anne Boleyn, to ride about in. It's frustrating to us because we know of no horseless carriage that'd yet been invented in 1533, and because we don't know how to find out more about the circumstances of this strange offer.

What is doubly odd is that the "wagon," as Marmin called it, apparently already existed, and the value he put upon it made it worth more than a conventional horse-drawn wagon. More than likely it was something he'd picked up in trade in the Netherlands -- a curiosity he'd set aside for the rainy day that had now come into his life.

If we look closely at his words, they exclude only animal power, but that leaves alternatives. The steam engine lay 200 years in the future. Maybe human pedal power fit the terms of his description, although pedaled vehicles didn't appear until 300 years later. I wonder if it might not have been sail- or spring-driven.

We have no record that Marmin's petition was accepted -- certainly no record that Anne Boleyn ever rode this vehicle. The one thing this strange little byroad in English history does is to remind us that the dream of the horseless carriage was alive and well even that long ago. Whatever Marmin's wagon really was, it reflects the dream that ultimately gave us the automobile.

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

(Theme music)

Alsop, J. D., The Invention of a Self-Propelled Vehicle in the 16th Century. Technology and Culture, Vol. 22, No. 4, 1981, pp. 753-756.

This episode has been substantially rewritten as Episode 1477.