Motor spirit at the Royal Institution

Laurence Scales takes a look at the Ri members who turned the crank handle for motoring and the Royal Automobile Club.

  • 1910 Waverley Coupe

    1910 Waverley Coupe

    Credit: Public domain

A British summer is the usual time for steam fairs and classic car rallies, but with the delightful exception of the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run (LBVCR). It is held on the first Sunday in November, generally either freezing cold or pouring with rain, and adding extra perversity by starting at the crack of dawn! The 500 odd cars that take part are so old that a good proportion of them don’t even look like cars and most need a lot of time and TLC to reach their destination.

There is a reason for this eccentricity. Sometimes called the Emancipation Run, it celebrates the anniversary of passing the Locomotives on Highways Act (1896) and the consequent abolition of the restriction that any self-propelled vehicle on the road had to be preceded by a person with a red warning flag – a law conceived at a time when the only engines on the road were likely to be steam traction engines lumbering from one farm to another.The new law also raised the speed limit from 4 miles per hour to an exhilarating 14mph. Ri members played a significant part in this.

  • Petrol powered car

     A petrol powered car at the London to Brighton event

    Credit: Laurence Scales

  • 1910 Waverley Coupe

    1910 Waverley Coupe

    Credit: Public domain

I was looking for something else recently when I came across a list, the members from around this time of the splendidly Victorian sounding Self-Propelled Traffic Association (SPTA). What surprised me was that I knew so many of the names of those early advocates of the motor car. The President, Sir David Lionel Salomons (an active motoring campaigner since 1895); two of the Vice-Presidents, Sir Frederick Bramwell and Alexander Siemens; and some of the committee, physicist C. V. Boys, petroleum chemist Boverton Redwood and Alfred Sennett were members of the Ri. It has been suggested that Salomons drafted the 1896 Act, as being one of the few men with the necessary expertise as he had also trained as a barrister.

Sir David Lionel Salomons (1851-1925) was one of those driven high achievers that make you wonder whether it is worth your while to get up in the morning. He was a director of railway, lighting and telegraph companies. He was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical, Chemical, and Geological societies and of the Physical Society of London. He won a prize from the Royal Photographic Society. He was an author, experimenter and inventor with numerous patents to his credit. He built a scientific theatre. His workshop had 60,000 tools. From the workshop it is said anything could be made from a watch to a steam engine, and of course he was not only an expert horologist (watch maker and collector) but also built his own electric tricycle. His home near Tunbridge Wells was one of the first houses with electricity (and a substantial house at that) and all the components had therefore to be designed and made at home. 

  • Sir David Lionel Salomons

    Sir David Lionel Salomons

    Credit: Public domain

In 1898 the SPTA merged with the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (later becoming the Royal Automobile Club or RAC) and Ri members were again well represented in the governing circle. Along with David Salomons and C. V. Boys new blood came into the management committee in the form of Ri members Edmund Macrory, engineer Rookes Crompton and boat builder John Thornycroft.

Incidentally, visitors to the Ri see a recharging point outside for electric cars and it may still seem like a novelty. But the veteran car run is also a chance to see one or two very old electric vehicles in action.

This year's Veteran Car Run is being held on Sunday 2nd November 2014. More information can be found here.

Salomons's home has partly been turned into a museum which you can find more information about here

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence.  He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

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