The iconic two-wheeled horse-drawn cab, beloved of Victorian cabbies, was once as common a sight on London’s streets as the black Hackney cab is today. Considering how popular it was, you would think its inventor, York architect Joseph Aloysius Hansom, would have made a packet from patenting the design on 23 December 1834. But he didn’t.
Hansom excelled as a designer of buildings, and he was quite a nifty inventor too. But he was a lousy entrepreneur, as his first foray into business proved. While in his mid-20s in 1831, Hansom, together with his business partner Edward Welch, won a tender to design and build a new town hall for the burgeoning city of Birmingham.
It was no mean feat. Some serious names had thrown their hats into the ring, including Charles Barry, the architect later behind the Palace of Westminster. Desperate to win, Hansom’s proposal cost just £16,648. But as an added sweetener, he promised to pay for any cost overruns and delays out of his own pocket. Unfortunately for Hansom, there were problems getting the marble from Anglesey, and work soon ground to a halt. Costs were mounting and, unable to pay his creditors, he was declared bankrupt in 1834.
But with a family to feed, Hansom started to look around for another money-making opportunity. Like today, in the first part of the 19th century, the taxi industry was undergoing a profound change. Cumbersome four-wheeled Hackney carriages were phased out, and from 1823, replaced with sportier two-wheeled ‘flies’, which were notoriously dangerous. Hansom set out to make them safer.
His design was filed as patent number 6733 at the Patent Office. He then sold the rights for £10,000 to the Safety Cabriolet & Two-wheel Carriage Company, which was set up with the considerable sum of £100,000 to produce Hansom cabs. For reasons not entirely clear, Hansom only ever received £300 for his “time and trouble”. By this time, Hansom had already gone back to what he loved best: designing churches. He died in 1882, aged 78. By the century’s end, there were more than 7,000 black cabs bearing his name in the capital.
Also on this day
After much debating, broad agreement was eventually reached and President Wilson was able to sign the bill creating the Federal Reserve into law on 23 December 1913. Read more here.