The Wheel Story: A Brief History of Buses

It’s difficult to imagine a world without buses. Our first taste of childhood independence is that big step onto the school bus. We learn to navigate cities by bus and even travel cross-country on them. Now, we buy them for our own organizations. How did we get here? If you want to know the “wheel story,” a brief history of buses will take you back a few centuries.

1662: Pascal’s Invention

The inventor of the bus was one of the great geniuses: Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician who helped develop the modern theory of probabilities. Near the end of his life, he came up with the carrosses à cinq sols: horse-drawncarriages with many seats that traveled across Paris according to a schedule. It’s considered the first bus line, although it wasn’t a success. Only nobility was able to ride the carriages, and of course, they had their own modes of transportation. After about a decade when the novelty wore off, these first buses were retired.

1826: The Omnibus

Once again, France was a pioneer in public transportation. France introduced the “omnibus.” The Latin root word “omni” means “all,” and buses were now available to all—commoners as well as the wealthy. And the inventor’s last name was Omnès, so the word was a pun, too. His omnibuses could carry up to 42 passengers, with three horses pulling the carriage. A world of travel opened up for the French, although the ride on cobblestones could be painful. In 1828, New York City established a similar bus line.

1833: Steam Power

Just a few years later, the first mechanical omnibus appeared on the streets of London, powered by steam. It significantly improved upon the original: it didn’t topple over as often, it was faster than horses, it was less expensive to operate, and its wider tires weren’t as rough on the roads. The horse-drawn coaches didn’t give up, though, and by 1861, the steam buses were legislated out of business.

1870s: Rail System

In the pursuit of a smoother ride, the United States started to lay rails along bus routes. Eventually, the country boasted more than 30,000 miles of street rail tracks. With less friction, the horses had an easier time pulling the carriages—up to a point. Each horse could only work for about two hours, so each bus needed 10 horses a day. It got expensive to feed them, and the public was unhappy about how they were treated.

1880s: Electric Trolleys

Enter the trolleybus—also known as electric streetcars, trams, or trolleys. They used rails but were powered by electric current lines above them. The trolleys were less expensive and could travel farther, a satisfying solution for public transportation. In fact, some streetcar lines are still active in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Seattle. These trams spurred the development of “streetcar suburbs,” communities that sprung up around each line used for daily work commutes. Cities were finally able to expand thanks to these early buses.

1898: Motor Buses

British motor company Daimler had a hand in popularizing internal combustion engine buses, or motor buses. Their double-decker buses could ferry 20 passengers and travel 11 miles an hour. Soon, Daimler was mass-producing and selling them to other countries. During World War 1, soldiers used hundreds of double-deckers.

1951: Modern Design

Motor buses were the status quo for decades until Mercedes Benz contributed a major innovation. The German automakers introduced a bus with a rear-end engine and roomier body. Since then, their design has been tweaked for different locations: suburban, school, city, and inter-city. Many families owned their own cars, but buses filled a void for anyone who couldn’t afford a vehicle or the gas to fill it. In the cities, space was at a premium, making it illogical to drive and park a car.

Today: Greener Transport

Pascal’s horse-drawn carriage—which never really got very far—was the precursor to the most widely used form of transportation in the world. School buses have gained a reputation as the safest vehicles on the roads. And as concerns about the environment have increased, so has an appreciation for buses. While they can consume a great deal of fuel, they are still the most efficient way to move large groups of people. Buses adhere to strict emission standard requirements as hybrids and greener fuel systems revolutionize the roads.

A Few Fun Bus Facts

  • The first known “school bus” was a horse-drawn carriage that delivered students to England’s Newington Academy for Girls in 1827.
  • The first modern yellow school bus hit the road in the United States in 1939.
  • The phrase “busman’s holiday” means taking a vacation only to spend it doing something a lot like your job. It was inspired by the drivers of horse-drawn buses, who would spend their days off following their regular routes to make sure their horses were being treated well.
  • The largest bus in the world is in China. The Neoplan Jumbocruiser accommodates 300 people.
  • The only working triple-decker bus was built for 2004’s “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” You can build the purple Knight Bus with a Lego set.
  • “A Streetcar Named Desire” was named after a real New Orleans public transit line, which ran along Canal Street and ended on Desire Street.
  • The land speed record for a bus is 367 miles per hour. In 2010, the adventurous Paul Stender tricked out a yellow school bus in Indiana with a GE-J70 jet engine from a McDonnell Douglas F4 Phantom II, painted the exterior with red flames, and raced it, with 80-foot real flames trailing behind it.

If this brief history of buses has you thinking about getting your own bus, reach out to National Bus Sales, Inc. We’re a bus dealer with a comprehensive selection of used and new shuttles, coaches, school buses, and vans. Wherever you are in the country, contact us to learn more about our inventory. Our brands include Ultra Coachliner, MCI, Van Hool, Setra, and Prevost, and we’ll deliver the buses to you.

The Wheel Story: A Brief History of Buses

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