The Locomobile

Judy Schramm September 1999 r

I was immediately struck by the photograph at the beginning of the "Seeds of Change 1901-1914" chapter of The Century: the "Locomobile," an automobile perched on the top of a rocky ledge in Yosemite. The caption tells us that this is an illustration of technology versus nature. It is an eye-catching image of a car on the edge of a dangerously high cliff, and also an image with a certain majestic quality, contrasting a product of technology with the natural landscape.

But there's something silly about it as well. Are we supposed to think that the car has driven up to the mountain top and therefore "conquered" the mountain, or does the very image of the car at such a height express superiority? Why does the photo show a man holding on to the back of the car, as if afraid it will roll off the edge -- did the photographer want to illustrate that technology could be crushed in an instant by nature? Why are there so many people? They couldn't all fit into the one car, and they don't look as though they hiked up there on foot. Perhaps they came up in other cars, but showing those cars in the photograph would certainly lessen the effect; we wouldn't be so impressed by seeing a parking lot full of cars on the mountain.

The photograph seems to suggest that nature and technology are each beautiful in different ways. Lippincott is quoted as saying that his car would never "detract from the sublimity of the great valley or lessen the majesty of the eternal hills." But it did after all. It has spoiled the beauty of the country, polluting the air, filling the landscape with millions of cars which are not only ugly but not built to last, crowding the roads and junkyards as well.

The image in this old photograph is still with us in advertising today, where we see shiny utility vehicles posed on the tops of huge rock formations. Whereas in the Lippincott photo the feeling is one of quiet adventure, of serene enjoyment of a beautiful view, with people looking relaxed as they sit on the edge of the cliff, today's ads are all about speed, excitement, and power. They have an athletic feel. Today's ads are more about the excitement of the ride up the mountain than the view, the promise of escape and freedom, and in some way suggest there is still a frontier, that with a car like this we can get away from the crowd to unexplored lands. This new image seems a ridiculous as the old. In the back of our minds we suspect that the car was lowered there by a helicopter, that there's a road full of gas stations and motels nearby.

We've let ourselves be taken over by the car. In spite of the evidence of its destructive effects all around us, we choose to ignore the bad and embrace the fantasy. The new utility vehicles are ugly gas-guzzlers, and we don't really imagine we'll be driving to the top of a rock formation in the desert, but the idea still seduces us. We've got it all wrong. We are totally dependent on the car, yet few of us know anything about how it works; we rely on mechanics to keep the car running, and we spend a fortune buying new cars as the old ones break down and as new models come out every year. The car is an amazing invention which has turned into a nightmare. We should approach it differently so that we can get back some of what we're losing -- it should be a vehicle which lasts a long time, which we know how to fix, which is beautiful, which doesn't pollute the air. The radio show "Car Talk" is an interesting reminder of the satisfaction of understanding technology, a "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" kind of possibility to turn the car into something more than just a disposable mode of transportation which pollutes the air.

Back to syllabus