Today, necessity makes a poor mother for invention.
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.
We don't think much about
moving the sick or hurt until we have to. Armies
have to. That's why armies first created the
specialized vehicle we call an ambulance.
William the Conqueror's army had an early
ambulance. It was only a litter carried by one
horse in front and another in back. The wounded man
rode in a closed box on the two poles. He suffered
a bone-jarring ride.
Various carts and litters show up in military
records until Napoleon. Then, in 1810, a French
army surgeon, Dominique Larrey, invented his
so-called "Flying Ambulance."
Larrey's ambulance was a light two-wheeled, two-man
carrier. It had padding, windows, and some
ventilation. It gave a pretty comfortable ride over
an open field. The wounded man felt like he was
flying. And that was the military standard through
the last century.
Ambulances were pure creatures of war until the Red
Cross formed in response to war. After 16 years of
birth pain, President Chester Arthur finally signed
the American Red Cross charter in 1881.
Clara Barton had carried
that struggle in America. Meanwhile, she'd worked
tirelessly for better medical service. The first
hospital ambulance services came out of her
efforts. They used horse-drawn vans.
The ambulance breakthrough came in 1899. That's
when the Wood Company put a new motorized ambulance
on the market. It was a battery-powered van that
went 16 miles an hour. It had the unhappy honor of
carrying our dying President McKinley after he was
shot in 1901.
From then on, public ambulance service grew in an
odd, but logical, place. Who had the best
facilities for carrying a person quickly,
comfortably, and horizontally? Who was on call
twenty-four hours a day? Why, funeral directors, of
So funeral homes doubled as ambulance services from
then until 1960. They had to give it up when
ambulances turned into traveling mini-hospitals.
But in 1930, nine out of ten funeral homes ran
ambulances. We used to see them all the time.
That's why we used to sing,
So ambulances were slow in coming. They
were given to us, not by inventors, but by soldiers
and undertakers. They're one of the few inventions
mothered only by necessity -- not by creative
pleasure. And that's the reason they took so long.
The old gray hearse goes rolling by,
You don't know whether to laugh or cry.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds