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BEING A BORN-AGAIN CALIFORNIAN, I hardly ever ride in a taxicab. However, I have enjoyed sharing tidbits about them here at SimanaitisSays and recently came upon another interesting facet: Namely, the fate of cab-fare maps, as described in a book devoted to such obsolete objects.
Paul Dobraszczyk writes in Extinct, “It’s easy to forget that taxicabs were horse-drawn longer than they have been motorized ones, and that passengers relied for a long time on printed information to work out their fares.”
Earliest Regulation. Dobraszczyk observes, “The earliest vehicles for hire in London were the hackney coaches, established in the early seventeenth century and overseen from 1694 by the Hackney Coach Commissioners, who regulated prices according to both distance and time. Printed information for passengers began to appear in the early eighteenth century, initially as lists of fares and coach regulations included in engraved city maps, and later as books of fares in their own right that were later required by law to be carried in all cabs.”
Great Exhibition Ripoffs. “The Metropolitan Police,” Dobraszczyk writes, “began regulating fares after 1853, mainly as a consequence of the widespread extortion of visitors by cabmen during the Great Exhibition of 1851.”
Celebrating Mother Prodgers. Dobraszczyk tells the charming tale of a particular passenger, “with the Dickensian title of Mrs Caroline Giacometti Prodgers,” who dominated the police reports in the early 1870s.
Mrs Prodgers would test the honesty of cabmen by riding an exact mile and then asking the fare. “After a time,” Dobraszczyk says, “she became so dreaded that the warning cry of ‘Mother Prodgers’ would send every cabman within hail dashing up side streets to escape.”
Invention of the Taximeter. The invention of the “taximeter” by Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav Bruhn in Germany in 1891, first used in a motorized cab in 1897, signalled the demise of cab-fare maps.
Dobraszczyk recounts, “By 1914 all new motorized cabs—and by then these already outnumbered horse-drawn ones—were required to carry an automated taximeter.”
Likely pronounced “tax-IM-e-ter,” (like “tach-OM-e-ter), the gizmo eventually gave rise to our word “taxi” describing a cab so equipped.
Nav Cabs. “Today,” Dobraszczyk says, “taximeters in cabs are invariably coupled with computerized satnav systems, the latter being the present-day equivalent of the printed maps of the Victorian period, albeit without their variety and visual appeal.” What’s more, smartphone apps have all but eliminated the need for passengers asking “What’s the fare?”
“The Knowledge.” Despite all this high tech, London cab drivers still have the initiation rite of acquiring “The Knowledge,” of memorizing this city’s streets, businesses, and landmarks within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.
Typically, study for The Knowledge involves three years of logging more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot.
And, appealing to tradition, I like to think there are still modern Mother Prodgers who probe “The Knowledge” as well as GPS and taximeters, however pronounced. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022