Ken Burns Classroom

The Horseless Carriage


Students will identify features that make an automobile practical for a cross-country trip and then design a 1903 era auto using lessons learned from Horatio’s journey.


Early automobiles were called “horseless carriages” for good reason—they were based on horse-drawn carriages, specifically the most expensive, elegant models such as the phaeton. Automobiles in 1903 were designed to appeal to the wealthy who could afford to indulge in costly playthings with limited practical value. Such expensive luxuries were typically used for short rides around town, with showing off the driver a major goal. The average American industrial worker in 1903 made around $500 a year. A new Winton automobile sold for $2,500. Dr. Jackson actually paid $3,000 for his, which was a month old with 1,000 miles on it and worn tires.

The Winton had a two-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine directly underneath the driver’s seat, with a chain drive, capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour; two speeds forward and one reverse; steering wheel on the right; no windshield and no top. It featured two of Alexander Winton’s many engineering innovations: a ratcheted lever that prevented broken arms if the engine unexpectedly backfired in the midst of being crank-started; and a hinge that allowed the steering wheel to be tipped away as the driver took his position.


Drawing from the film and other resources (see Resource section), have students research and identify some of the more common mechanical features of automobiles (i.e., standard engine horsepower, steering mechanisms, mode of fuel, etc.) in the early part of the 20th century. Invite them to discuss and share their information and discuss why these autos, especially ones that were used for long trips, were often mechanical nightmares.

To get students in a 1903 frame of mind, have them research horse carriages, especially the phaeton and landau models. Compare these to the Winton automobile.

Divide students into small groups. Have them assume the role of designers of a new automobile company charged with creating a vehicle capable of traveling through the United States. Have the students make a list of features that a vehicle should have to make a safe cross-country trip. They should also consider the market for this car. Will it only be for the rich or can it be a mass-produced car that is more economically accessible?

Instruct students to create a blueprint of the vehicle, noting its particular features and the functional capacity of each. Invite the groups to present their models at a mock national automobile convention.

They should then draw a blueprint of the vehicle, noting its particular features and the functional capacity of each.

Things to remember:

  • It’s 1903—the look of the auto should be based on horse-drawn carriages, not 21st century cars.
  • This automobile will be expensive, so it’s got to appeal to the consumer. Make it look good.
  • The power source doesn’t have to be gasoline. Many early automobiles used electric batteries or burned coal/wood to produce steam. When the auto ran out of fuel, where would the driver get more?
  • Paved roads didn’t exist outside of cities and even most city roads are dirt or gravel. The car may need to go across country without any road to follow.
  • Engines of the day weren’t very powerful. The automobile shouldn’t be too large or heavy or it won’t make it over a hill, let alone a mountain. The Winton was one of the most powerful autos of the time, with a 20 horsepower engine. A 21st century SUV has a 200 horsepower engine.

Extended Activities

Students can:

  • Write a sales brochure for the automobile, highlighting the special features designed for cross-country travel.
  • Display the cars in a mock car show. Have students act as announcers, introducing the special features of their automobiles to the class. Entries may (or may not) be grouped according to specific features, such as fuel source or number of passengers. Have students vote for the automobile(s) that best meet the challenges of 1903 road travel.
  • Analyze the Winton auto used for the trip. What features did it have that made Sewall K. Crocker recommend it for the trip? What features was it lacking compared to modern cars?
  • Compare and contrast the three 1903 automobiles that made it across the USA with a modern SUV. Students may either use the information below or conduct independent research.

Jackson wasn’t the only person convinced that the automobile was more than a toy. Even before Jackson made his bet, the Packard and Oldsmobile automobile manufacturers were planning cross-country automobile journeys. Their efforts involved months of planning and logistical support, with extra supplies shipped ahead and personal belongings sent by train to the various towns on the way. The Packard automobile was a 12 horsepower touring car nicknamed “The Old Pacific”. The Oldsmobile Runabout was the first car made on an assembly line and was smaller and cheaper than the others cars. The Olds Runabout was the first gasoline automobile to outsell steam or electric models.

Winton Touring Car, nickname The Vermont Packard Touring Car, nickname Old Pacific Oldsmobile Runabout Modern SUV (Generic information. Will vary by model)
Horsepower 20 12 7 200
# of cylinders 2 2 1 6-8
Top Speed 30 Not available Not available greater than 55mph
Steering Steering wheel located on the right side Steering wheel on the right side Tiller—a stick moved from side to side Steering wheel on the left side
Capacity of gas Tank 12 gallons Not available 5 gallons 22 gallons
Miles per gallon 15 Not available Not available 15 city/ 20 highway
Headlights None. Dr. Jackson installed acetylene headlight a few days into the journey One center mounted headlight Two headlights Standard
Air Conditioning No roof, sides, windshields or windows Standard
Seating Capacity 5, but Dr. Jackson removed the back seat 5 2 5
Cargo Capacity None, but approximately 20 cubic feet with rear seat removed None. Luggage was sent ahead by train None 65 cubic feet with rear seat folded down
Price when new $2,500 $2,500 $600 Approximately $21,000
Number of days to make the cross-country trip 63 61 72 Less than 5
  • Invite an automotive engineer to speak to the class. The Society of Automotive Engineers has a volunteer speaker bureau.
  • Have students participate in a modern vehicle design competition. Several competitions are listed in the “Resources” section.


Early Automobiles

  • Horatio’s Drive video
  • Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, Knopf, 2003.
  • Internet research for: phaeton carriage, landau carriage, 1903 Winton, 1903 Packard, 1903 Oldsmobile Runabout.
  • The Henry Ford Museum (
  • An extensive site that deals with general American history as well as automotive history. The site includes lesson plans for a 1919 road trip.
  • Antique Automobile Club of America (

Modern Automobiles

  • Internet research for sports utility vehicles (SUV).

Modern Automobile Design

  • Society of Automotive Engineers ( This organization sponsors several student programs, including “A World in Motion” for K-12 grade. AWIM connects volunteer engineers with classes interested in engineering activities.

Student Vehicle Competitions

  • Build Your Dream Vehicle ( This competition for high school students judges entries based on teamwork, marketing, finance, design and communication.
  • Department of Energy ( Information and links to several student vehicle competitions.


This activity addresses the following national content standards established by the National Science Teachers Association:

Science and Technology

  • Abilities of Technological Design
  • Understanding about Science and Technology

History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a Human Endeavor
  • History of Science

About The Authors

Jeannine Finton

Jeannine Finton is an education consultant with over twenty years experience designing innovative hands-on lessons and programs in science and history for public television, museums and schools. She has been the Supervisor of School Programs at the Maryland Science Center and Liberty Science Center, as well as the Education Coordinator for the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Projects have included Planet Neighborhood for WETA and Titanic Science and BodyLink for the Maryland Science Center.