Buxton, W. (1989). On the Road to Brighton. SIGCHI Bulletin 20(4), 16-17.



Bill Buxton

On a number of occasions, I've heard speakers compare the operation of computers unfavourably to that of automobiles. "Why," they ask, "can't we design computers like cars, where one can move from one to the other, despite different manufacturers, and still be able to drive?" In some ways, it is hard to argue against the underlying thrust of the question. The automobile rental industry, among other things, is based upon such standard user interfaces and the operator's ability to transfer driving skills from vehicle to vehicle.

But despite being a large consumer of the services offered by car rental agencies, I have always felt that there was something left out when this type of rhetorical question was asked. The line of argument usually proceeds along lines like, "What if cars were designed the way computer user interfaces are?" followed by lots of examples like, "What if the clutch was on the right foot and accelerator on the left?" etc., leaving visions of death, destruction and all kinds of havoc on the highway, and by implication, on the computer-way.

Well, I went to Brighton to see the finish of the London-Brighton veteran car race this fall. It was fantastic, and is highly recommended. There were 428 cars participating. The newest was built in 1904, and the oldest in 1884! There they were: all (nearly) trundling down from London to Brighton (about 60 miles) at close to 20 mph.

Now let's leave out, for the moment, any speculation as to whether any of our machines will still be operable in 104 years. Why I'm writing all of this is the potential that the race affords to take a closer look at the evolution of technology and the process of design.

In addition to the magic of these old cars, one of the most enjoyable things about the weekend was discovering "up close" just how much early automobiles were designed like current user interfaces! I'm sure that there is something in all of this for the researcher interested in design methodologies and the history of technology.

Rather than going on at length beyond my commentary above, let me simply offer the following excerpt from the official souvenir programme:

From F. Wilson McComb, Driving a Brighton Runner, in the Souvenier Programme of the 1988 RAC London?Brighton Veteran Car Run, page 13:

Today, almost all cars have the same basic controls in much the same positions (except that it takes a born genius, nowadays, to tune in the radio or operate the heater). At the dawn of the motoring era, the designer followed no particular rules, he did it his way, and be blowed to all the rest. Which is why the pre-1905 horseless carriages we see today bristle with strange knobs and levers, any one of which can do almost anything.

The driver of an early Lanchester, for example, steers it by laying his right arm along a side-lever, while his right hand flashes from "vapour regulator" (mixture control) to petrol pump to compound gear trigger, between two engine governor levers and two gear levers, one of which is always a brake. His left foot operates the accelerator and his right foot is merely used to blow the horn, by stamping hard on a floor-mounted rubber bulb.

By contrast, the Locomobile steam car has a transverse steering lever which is gripped in the left hand. The right hand operates the throttle lever, the link-motion control lever, the water-feed bypass lever, and all the mysterious stopcocks associated with "steam power." Like the Lanchester, the early Delahaye had an accelerator pedal on the left, but you pressed it to slow down and released it to go faster; not much chance of catching that one if you happened to fall out. On the popular little De Dion Bouton, the left pedal is not only a decelerator but also a transmission brake, and the right pedal (operated with the heel) engages reverse. The Brotherhood-Crockerhad a flanged accelerator pedal, because it was controlled by swivelling the foot from side to side, instead of up and down. And Denmark's pioneering car, the remarkable Hammel, turned left when the steering wheel was turned to the right, and vice-versa, so your Hammel driver wore an earnest, rather worried expression at all times.