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The 1865 “Red Flag Act” Speed Limit: 4 mph!

Disruptive Technology By Karl Benz

Karl Benz’s Patent MotorWagen, considered the first automobile, was one of the greatest disruptive technologies of its day, or of any time for that matter. It even triggered he 1865 “Red Flag Act” Speed Limit of 4 mph!

Although other inventors had been working several years on the internal combustion engine for use in the horseless carriage, it was Karl Benz who obtained the patent for  the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine 1886.

The Power Of  One Entire Horse

Benz’s automobile had a single-cylinder 4-stroke engine: a crankshaft with balance weights, electric ignition and water cooling, enough to reach a top speed of somewhere between 10 and 12 miles per hour. In essense, it had as much power as one adult horse.

Stagecoach and Locomotive Industries Were Not Fans

Some industries (who shall remain nameless) tried to limit the use of the new contraptions to carrying people and goods to a distance of one mile to and from stagecoach and train stations.

The Red Flag Act Is Born 

As it turns out, the stagecoach and locomotive industries were shaking in their boots for fear of being upstaged by the automobile. Their lobbying efforts in the United Kingdom led to a series of  Acts of Parliament in 1861, 1865 and 1878.  The least fun of these was the Locomotive Act of 1865, better known as “the Red Flag Act.”

Among other things, the now famous law limited the speed of automobiles to 2 mph in the city and 4 mph in the country. It also required a crew of three people to operate a vehicle – a driver, a stoker and a man to walk in front, waving a red flag if the vehicle was hauling multiple wagons.

The Speed Limit is Finally Raised!

Fortunately, the 1896 Locomotives on Highways Act removed some restrictions of the 1865 act.  Most important of these revisions to modern drivers, it raised the speed limit to somewhere around 14 mph.

Check out this video on Karl Benz’s Journey.

Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History

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