The First Automobile Fatality Occurred At 4 MPH

By Joshua T. Garcia on Sunday, November 24, 2013
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“Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that’s what gets you.” —Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear

In A Nutshell

An 1869 ride-along in a steam-powered car turned deadly when the vehicle arrived at a bend in the road. The vehicle was not capable of moving at high speeds, and the Red Flag Acts had limited the speed limit to 6 kilometers per hour (4 mph), but one passenger, Mary Ward, was thrown from the car and run over. She was killed almost instantly.

The Whole Bushel

Steam-powered engines were an emerging trend in the 1800s. As steam trains and boats surged in popularity, many people assumed that the steam car would be the next big thing. But the automobiles proved unreliable, and roads did not accommodate the emerging technology.

Popular interest in the vehicles further waned due to the Red Flag Acts, UK legislation that addressed automobile usage. In 1865, the speed limit was restricted to 6 kilometers per hour (4 mph) in the country and half that in the city.

That didn’t stop some mechanics and enthusiasts from building their own steam-powered cars. Case in point: The Parsons brothers. On August 31, 1869, the Parsons were giving a ride to their cousin Mary Ward, her husband, and their tutor in Offaly County, Ireland, when they came to a bend in the road.

Mary Ward was thrown from the vehicle and was crushed by the wheels. A doctor quickly arrived on the scene and determined that she had been killed almost instantly. Her neck was broken.

Ward had been a scientist and illustrator. She taught herself microscopy, self-published a book on the subject—A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope—and was the first of three female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Ward lacked any formal education, as the scientific community of the time did not regard women especially highly. However, Ward educated herself through her own observations and correspondence with other scientists. Physicist David Brewster even used her illustrations for his own work.

One of the Parsons brothers, Charles, went on to become a highly influential engineer in steam technology.

Show Me The Proof

Mary Ward
The First Person Killed By A Car Also Happened To Be A Really Awesome Woman

  • Hillyard

    It’s too bad that she’s remembered for being the first automobile fatality and not her real accomplishments.

  • Hadeskabir

    Interesting article. It’s interesting on how somethings we think are normal, like cars, were once looked upon as weird machines.

    • Arjan Hut

      Once? Today, most of them look like oversized vacüumcleaners.

      • Hadeskabir

        But I don’t think they are weird even though I think they are ugly cars.

  • Passin’ Through

    “That didn’t stop some mechanics and enthusiasts from building their own steam-powered cars. Case in point: The Parsons brothers.”

    I don’t understand why this is included. Were they going too fast? Did the car have a speedometer?

    I’m confused.

  • Spartacross

    Poor Mathew.
    That lady Marry is not only a bitch – but a damn witch as well.

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