Historicist: The Dawn of the Horseless Era
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Historicist: The Dawn of the Horseless Era

Frederick Barnard Fetherstonhaugh owned Toronto's first "motor carriage."

The vehicle at right is believed to be the first automobile in Toronto, photographed circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 56.

On December 7, 1896, the Globe heralded “the dawn of the horseless era” in Toronto, following the test of a motor vehicle at Dixon’s Carriage Works at Bay and Temperance streets. Dixon’s had hitherto dealt exclusively in horse-drawn vehicles, and this “motor carriage” was the first of its kind in Toronto, the personal property of patent attorney Frederick Barnard Fetherstonhaugh.

Fetherstonhaugh was born in Paisley, Ontario, in 1862. He attended the Toronto Collegiate Institute (later known as Jarvis Collegiate, at Jarvis and Carlton) and subsequently, the University of Toronto, after which he attended the Toronto Law School. He seems to have set his sights on patent law early in life, as his name first shows up as a witness on Canadian patents as early as 1883. He was called to the bar in 1889, the year of his 27th birthday. One year later he established his own firm, Fetherstonhaugh & Co., specializing in patent law.

Fetherstonhaugh & Co.’s offices were, initially, in the Bank of Commerce building at King and Jordan, before a relocation to the Royal Bank building on King, just east of Yonge, in the early 1900s. Some measure of the firm’s early success can be gleaned from the notices of new patents which frequently appeared in the Globe in the 1890s. One such notice, from July of 1896, attributes 22 new patents to “patent barristers” Fetherstonhaugh & Co., including several bicycle-related innovations, multiple kinds of locks, an adding machine, a separating machine, a kind of boot, and a “working machine for cleaning rice.” It should be noted that some of these were American and British patents, demonstrating the firm’s ability to attract international business. These notices also reflect the abundance of talent and ingenuity of the era, and the rapid rate at which the modern world was changing.

Advertisement, The Toronto City Directory, 1895. Might Directories, Ltd.

It was presumably through his legal work that Fetherstonhaugh met an industrious Toronto engineer named William Joseph Still. Humbly described in 1890s city directories as an “electrician,” and in a subsequent Globe article as a “mechanician,” Still designed an electric motor, said to be the product of 18 months’ labour, which became the basis of Fetherstonhaugh’s motor carriage. Still’s designs also featured what was reportedly a unique type of battery; while other electric vehicles at this time favoured solid lead plates, Still used a coil of lead wrapped around a piece of wood. The result was a battery significantly lighter than that featured in other electric motor vehicles of the period.

Fetherstonhaugh was obviously impressed with Still’s creation. It is unclear whether Fetherstonhaugh made any personal changes to the design, or if his role was limited to that of the financier. Regardless, Fetherstonhaugh’s interest was clearly more than a professional one, because the result was the construction of an automobile which Fetherstonhaugh owned and kept for his personal use.

Lithograph diagram of a motor patented by William J. Still in the United States 1894, after it was previously patented in Canada in 1893. Note Fetherstonhaugh's signature below Still's in the lower corner. U.S. Patent No. 517668.

The assembly of the vehicle was overseen by John Dixon. The reputation of Dixon as a respected Toronto carriage maker can be gleaned from newspaper descriptions of Dixon’s wares at the Exhibition, where he was amongst many carriage makers who displayed their models. During the 1893 Exhibition, The Toronto Mail wrote that “Mr. Dixon has invariably carried off the palm in excellence of workmanship and variety of design and finish in carriages. This year is no exception to the rule, for Mr. Dixon’s display is one that Canada should feel proud of… from the varnish to the upholstering, nothing but the best materials are used, and in this line Mr. Dixon stands in the front rank.”

Period descriptions of the Fetherstonhaugh car are rare, and accounts differ as to its exact design and dimensions. According to the Globe, the vehicle’s electric motor was capable of four horsepower, and able to achieve speeds of 15 miles an hour. The motor weighed 100 pounds, and the storage batteries a combined 270 pounds. The chief advantage of this comparatively lightweight battery was that the finished vehicle was considerably lighter than those made by other contemporary engineers, weighing in somewhere between 700 and 800 pounds. When fully charged, the batteries would reportedly last “for a continuous drive of five hours.”

Advertisement, The City of Toronto Directory, 1900. Might Directories Ltd.

The Globe describes the carriage’s operation thusly: “An iron bar, with a handle to the right hand of the seat, controls the power and also is used in steering, while a small lever does the reversing. Two small electric lights on the dashboard give light at night, and a gong warns pedestrians.” It also featured a top, and “as an extra precaution against the weather a celluloid blind is used, through which those inside can see plainly.”

This being December, and with 1890s Toronto roads not designed or maintained with motor vehicles in mind, the original plan of testing the vehicle in the street was abandoned due to “inclement weather,” in favour of a test run at Dixon’s, which presumably had facilities normally used for testing horse-drawn vehicles.

After its first run, the Globe wrote that “Mr. Fetherstonhaugh intends to use the carriage and will go from his house to the office on it every day.” At the time, Fetherstonhaugh lived at 677 Spadina Avenue, which was pretty much where that address would be today, just north of Sussex Avenue. Assuming that, weather permitting, he did indeed drive his motor carriage from Spadina to King and Jordan, F.B. Fetherstonhaugh was Toronto’s first commuter by car.

Dixon's Carriage Works was the site of the first test of a motor vehicle in Toronto, seen at the northeast corner of Bay & Temperance on the 1894 Goad fire insurance map.

The following year, it was reported that there was a plan for an automobile exhibit at the Exhibition, although if this exhibit actually happened in 1897, little was said about it in the local press. In the 1890s, newspaper descriptions of the Exhibition focus more on competitions and on products exhibited for consumers to purchase. Motor vehicles were still a novelty in those years, owned mostly by the few who possessed both deep pockets and a spirit of adventure.

In 1898, the Exhibition’s motor vehicle exhibit drew considerable interest with a display by the Canadian Motor Syndicate, of which William Still was now vice-president. With the Exhibition’s automotive building still a few decades away, the Syndicate’s display was in the “carriage building,” presumably amidst other vendors who were displaying their own, horse-drawn vehicles. Several horseless carriages were on display, including both personal and delivery vehicles. Still was reported to have been experimenting with other types of motors as early as 1897, and at the 1898 Exhibition he exhibited a new vehicle reportedly capable of speeds of 35 miles an hour, more than twice the top reported speed of the initial Fetherstonhaugh car.

The highlight of the 1898 Canadian Motor Syndicate exhibit was the “autocar,” another vehicle with a motor personally designed by William Still. The autocar was designed to transport parcels and as many as 24 people between Toronto and Richmond Hill along Yonge Street, without the need of rails or overhead wires. A description of this vehicle in the Star states that it was to be “furnished with electric light, and buttons for the use of conductor and passengers, by which warning may be given the motorman to turn to right or left boulevard, and call for passengers, or to stop suddenly in case of danger.” Thanks to Still’s motor, the Star noted, this vehicle “will be the first in the world to develop power sufficient to ascend the heavy grades between Toronto and Richmond Hill, at a speed varying from 6 to 12 miles an hour, carrying [a full] load.”

Announcing the "Autocar." The Daily Star. March 10, 1898.

In 1898, the Star attributed the increasing interest in automobiles to changes in design, noting that the average motor vehicle in 1898 weighed about half that of an 1896 vehicle. Aided by simpler controls, the lighter models were reportedly easier to manoeuvre, and thus more popular. In the Star‘s estimation, “anyone of average intelligence could learn to handle the vehicle in a very few hours.” Nevertheless, Toronto’s transition to motor vehicles was not a completely smooth ride.

Fetherstonhaugh remained active for many years in both Toronto public life and in patent law. One of his more significant contributions to the legal community was drafting the British Empire Patent Act, proposed legislation which would have unified and greatly simplified the patent process across the Empire. In his 1923 work The Municipality of Toronto: A History, Jesse Edgar Middleton describes the act as “unquestionably one of the most vitally constructive pieces of proposed legislation which has come before the Imperial Government in recent years, and its possibilities in the encouragement of industrial advance amount to no less than the inauguration of an industrial Renaissance.” Despite Fetherstonhaugh’s efforts, however, the legislation never came to pass.

"The Towers," built by F.B. Fetherstonhaugh on his estate in Mimico, pictured in 1955. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

In 1899, Fetherstonhaugh moved west of the city, often credited as the first of several wealthy Torontonians to build a swanky estate in Mimico, as it transitioned into a residential suburb. His property on Lake Shore Boulevard was physically impressive, including the primary residence, known as Lynn Lodge, and later a second, castle-like guest house known as “The Towers.” Lynn Lodge was an oasis from the city, but accessible to downtown Toronto by electric streetcars, which first connected Mimico to Toronto in 1893. According to Toronto historian Mike Filey, Fetherstonhaugh was able to charge his car’s batteries with electricity from the overhead streetcar wires.

After Fetherstonhaugh’s death in 1945, Lynn Lodge spent several years as an Italian restaurant. Both Lynn Lodge and The Towers have been demolished, although some servants’ buildings on the property remain, which City Council has agreed to protect under the Ontario Heritage Act. The final fate of his motor vehicle is lost to history, although his professional legacy remains alive in the form of Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh, a firm which specializes in intellectual property and technology law.

Additional material from: Harvey Currell, The Mimico Story (Town of Mimico and Library Board, 1967); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches, Volume 5 (Dundurn, 1997); Mike Filey, Toronto Sketches, Volume 10 (Dundurn, 2010); Jesse Edgar Middleton, The Municipality of Toronto: A History (Dominion, 1923); The Globe (July 25, December 7, 1896; August 28, 1897; September 3, September 10, 1898; July 9, 1945); The Toronto Mail (September 7, 1893); The Toronto Daily Star (March 10, August 23, 1898; July 27, 1901; July 9, 1905; November 19, 1936).