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 wool-trader John
Marmin had been operating in northern France. Now
he was languishing in prison for failing to pay a
debt. That year he petitioned Henry VIII to release
him. As historian James Alsop tells Marmin's story,
he points out that it was customary in those days
to offer a bribe along with such a request. 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. [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! Poor Marmin, wanting to
get out of jail, offers Henry VIII a horseless
carriage for his new queen, Anne Boleyn, to ride
about in. Of course we know of no form of horseless
carriage from the world of 1533.
What's doubly odd is that the "wagon," as Marmin
calls it, apparently did exist. The value he put
upon it made it worth more than any 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 this
rainy day that'd now come into his life.
Marmin could hardly have been running a shell game.
He was, after all, dealing with the King. So let's
look closely at his words and take them at face
value. Marmin excludes only animal power, but that
leaves alternatives. We're safe to rule out steam
power. Not even the most rudimentary steam engine
would exist for another two hundred years. Human
pedal power should probably be excluded as well.
Even if a human could produce enough power, pedaled
vehicles didn't appear until three hundred years
Many Medieval inventors had thought about other
drive systems. Among them, vehicles to be driven by
springs or falling weights, But those couldn't have
stored enough energy to be practical.
However, this vehicle came out of Flanders, a
country that ran from present day Belgium into
France. It came out of the windmill-powered
lowlands. I suspect this vehicle carried either
sails or a mobile windmill fan. Either could've
been made to work, but only as long as the fickle
winds favored it.
We have no record that Marmin's petition was
accepted -- certainly no record that Anne Boleyn
ever rode this vehicle. Still, this strange little
byroad in English history reminds us that the dream
of the horseless carriage has been alive for a long
long time. Whatever Marmin's wagon really was, it
reflects the gathering forces that would, in some
yet-remote future, give us railroads, bicycles and,
at length, the automobile itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds