The IMechE Library has been providing an information service to members since at least 1877, even before the Institution moved into its current location in One Birdcage Walk. It still holds many early engineering works, most of which are now located on the galleries which surround the library room. This series of posts looks at the fascinating stories these works can tell about history of the Institution and of engineering.

Cars and how to drive them (London: The Car Illustrated, 1903)

This highly-illustrated and yet affordably-produced work was first published in 1901 to introduce an amateur motorist to the practicalities and pleasures of car ownership. Its editor, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, was an MP and keen promoter of the motoring industry. The majority of its chapters read as personal accounts of different makes of car, penned by an existing owner of each, with illustrations showing the models within that make and their notable owners. Chapters include the Panhard, the Daimler, the Napier, the Renault, the Peugeot and the Mercédès.

Vera Butler

Advertising the car to the broadest possible audience, the work includes chapters by female authors. Miss Vera Butler’s chapter on her Renault blends an account of the driving experience with technical details described in lay terms is presented as equal to her male counterparts, which is perhaps surprising in so early a work. The question of women being permitted to join the IAE was not even raised until 1907, and it took nearly two decades for its first female member to be accepted (see our previous post celebrating women in engineering).

The latter chapters concern specific aspects of the driving experience including how to care for tyres, hints on touring and “the law as to lamps”. A highlight is “the little things that matter”, covering such topics as googles, foot and hand wear, rugs, cushions and timepieces:

In these days when motorists are continually being confronted with unreliable police evidence, it is most valuable to have a watch with a comparatively big second hand, so that the times over well-known distances can be correctly checked.

Initial M

The book itself is a pleasure to read. Its jolly cover and playful initial pieces (featuring tiny images of yet more cars) are deliberately appealing to the non-expert, but the first-hand accounts of driving and ownership of each vehicle offer much to the car enthusiast too. It’s likely that these user accounts of early models were of interest to later manufacturers too, since the book formed part of the Library of the Institution of Automobile Engineers (IAE), which merged with the IMechE to become its Automotive Division in 1947.

Irving Signature
Signature: J.S.Irving

Thanks to a surviving signature on one of the early pages, we can even suggest who owned the book prior to its arrival at the IAE. “J S Irving” was none other than John Samuel Irving (1880-1953), member of the IAE, best know for designing the “Golden Arrow”, which achieved the world speed record of 231.44 mph at Daytona on 11 March 1929. We can guess that he donated it to his institution, the IAE, because he has a history of donating other items. For example, the IMechE’s own model of the Golden Arrow was presented to the Institution by the man himself in July 1929 (view the model online)

Golden Arrow
Sir Henry Seagrave driving the “Golden Arrow”

Browse images in the collection of the Institution of Automobile Engineers on our virtual archive

Library, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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