Launched in 2016, Vancouver’s public bike share scheme enables locals to access wheels and pedal around the city whenever they fancy. But this wasn’t the first such system to be tried here. More than a century before, a unique individual transportation method had been introduced. And it deployed very different technology.
Hailing from Chippingfordbury, England, George Whittington-Smithe arrived in B.C. in the final years of the 19th-century. After studying steam engines via a three-week correspondence course in the UK, he had packed up his model pistons and moved with his young wife Emily to the colonies, where unbounded opportunity awaited.
At first, he made ends meet with a job at the Capilano Suspension Bridge, collecting hats from the canyon after they’d blown off the heads of unsuspecting bridge-crossers. But when he wasn’t working, he spent all his spare time in the garden shed of his tiny Strathcona home. It was a hotbed of unrequited innovation.
His steam-powered toaster-hair-dryer invention (named the Crispy Curler) was a huge, head-mounted machine that quickly scalded most scalps just as a pair of burnt bread slices popped out the top. In contrast, the handsfree Sock-a-Matic was a step-in cabinet that warmed your cold feet and pulled your socks on. But if it wasn't calibrated properly, it also ripped out your toenails.
None of Whittington-Smithe’s steam-driven creations caught on. But a fateful 1901 meeting with Vancouver Mayor Thomas Townley at a local bar changed everything. Fortified with libations, the bragging, moustache-twizzling Brit mesmerized the equally lubricated official with his grand ideas, suggesting that Vancouver could become a global pioneer of personal-use steam gadgets.
And the best way to showcase the city’s ultramodern outlook? A unique individual transportation system that Whittington-Smithe dubbed the patented Steam Donkey. This equine-themed solution promised street corner hitching posts where full-sized, ready-to-mount iron donkeys awaited coin-operated activation. With its passenger in the saddle, the machine would steam-up before juddering along dedicated donkey lanes at up to three miles-per-hour.
Seizing the opportunity, Whittington-Smithe drew-up a contract on the back of a drinks coaster. And once Townley had signed, he rushed home to start work. Within weeks, locals were excited to see the copper-eared Steam Donkeys––now officially named Automatic Social Shifters––popping up at new hitching posts around the city. On the morning of August 14, the system was ready for launch.
The first day was a fiesta of fun in Vancouver as the gently steaming metallic beasts plodded haltingly around the city, carrying smiling riders and trailing groups of laughing children. The mechanical donkeys were spotted in Stanley Park, outside the first Hotel Vancouver and along Carrall Street, where they drew a large crowd of cheering locals.
By the end of the week, however, the euphoria began to evaporate. There were reports of an elderly Vancouverite being trampled while crossing a donkey lane, plus widespread gossip that a donkey had bolted to more than 10 miles-per-hour before pitching its terrified rider into False Creek. The worst problem, though, was what came to be known as ‘hot legs.’
To protect passengers, Whittington-Smithe had installed a cooling system of ice-cube chambers above the steam boilers on each donkey. But once the unit had been operating for five minutes or so, the ice-cubes melted and the donkey’s surface temperate rapidly rose. Short downtown jaunts were usually fine but longer excursions to Shaughnessy or beyond could roast your thighs like a well-done steak.
A pungent aroma of sizzling flesh soon pervaded the city and local hospitals were swamped with leg-burn injuries. Six days after launching, the new transport system was abruptly shut down. All of the 78 Steam Donkeys were quickly rounded up and dumped en masse in Whittington-Smithe’s front garden. Broken and ashamed, he spent the rest of his days in his shed, surrounded by the twisted wrecks of his greatest––and most tragic––invention.
Read more from Vancouverandom: A Miscellany of Untrue History About the Birthplace of the Ear Trumpet here.