A Short History of the Taxi

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 30, 2015

To tell the story of the taxi from ancient history to today, let’s start with the sedan chair. After all, these novel devices—carried by a pair of stout gentlemen—originated in Sedan, France in the 17th century and thus gave us the word “sedan” we still apply to cars today.

The sedan chair might be the first taxi.Think of them as a nicely furnished pod mounted on twin horizontal poles to make carrying easier. According to Grace Elliot’s history:

The very wealthy [Parisians] kept their own chair (minus poles) in the hall of their town house and had it painted and decorated to match the interior décor. Others had their footman summon a chair by standing in the street and shouting ‘chair, chair,’ whereupon a race of competing chairmen hastened forth.

Sounds like a taxi to me. Chairmen, ancestors of the pedicab drivers in our cities today, were even licensed—and there were stations where you could always get a lift (literally).

Early Hackney coaches ready for passengers--in the 17th century.Around the same time, 1640, Nicolas Sauvage began offering horse-drawn carriages for hire in Paris (a transportation pioneer, that city). By that time, the Hackney Carriage Act, controlling the hiring of cabs, had been passed in England—that’s why we used to call them “hacks.”

It was actually 200 years before the next important development occurred—the invention of the taximeter, measuring the distance (or time) a car traveled. The year was 1891, and the German inventor was Wilhelm Bruhn. The British by then were riding around in Hansom cabs, an improved design offering both speed and safety. That led to the famous pioneering Gottlieb Daimler (a father of Mercedes-Benz) to build the first taxi cab as we know it in 1897.

Electric taxis hit the streets in New York circa 1897. What killed 'em? The electric starter for gas cars.Shortly after this, the first self-propelled taxis appeared. New York’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, believe it or not, had put a dozen electric Hansom cabs on the road as early as 1897, before there were many gas cars about. In 1899, the first American pedestrian, Henry Bliss, died in a car accident—after being hit by one of those electric taxis. He had just stepped off a streetcar near the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Henry Bliss made history, by being the first American pedestrian killed in an auto accident. An electric taxi was the cause.Plug-ins dominated the early auto market until the invention of the self-starter for gas cars by GM employee Charles Kettering. The breakthrough, eliminating the need for a crank, first appeared on the 1912 Cadillac, and early EVs started to fade.

Gas-powered cabs were in Paris by 1899, in London by 1903, and in New York (imported from France) in 1907. The importer, businessman Harry Allen, was the first taxi owner to paint his vehicles yellow, a tradition that continues today.

A Yellow Cab in San Francisco around 1945. DeSotos were popular as cabs.The rest isn’t that interesting. Two-way radios appeared in the late 1940s, allowing communication with “dispatch.” Computer-aided dispatching was added in the 1980s. At that point, taxis were mostly big Ford Crown Victorias and Chevy Caprices, but today huge fleets of fuel-efficient hybrids are on city streets. Electric cars may come back—New York City has experimented with Nissan Leaf taxis.

I can’t tell you when cabs acquired those annoying TV sets mounted in the divider, but they should be relegated to the historical record as soon as possible.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter