seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

Death of Mary Ward, First Motor Vehicle Fatality

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mary-wardMary Ward, Anglo-Irish amateur scientist, is killed on August 31, 1869, when she falls under the wheels of an experimental steam car built by her cousins. As the event occurs in 1869, she is the world’s first person known to be killed by a motor vehicle.

During the 19th century, when most women have little encouragement for a science education, Mary is unusual. She is born Mary King in present-day Ferbane, County Offaly on April 27, 1827, the youngest child of Henry and Harriett King. She and her sisters are educated at home, as are most girls at the time. However, her education is slightly different from the norm because she is of a renowned scientific family. She is interested in nature from an early age, and by the time she is three years old she is collecting insects.

Universities and most societies do not accept women, but Mary obtains information any way she can. She writes frequently to scientists, asking them about papers they have published. During 1848, her cousin William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, is made President of the Royal Society, enabling her to meet many scientists during visits to his home.

Parsons’ sons build a steam-powered car. It is thought at the time that steam transport will be developed greatly during the near future. This becomes true for trains, but does not become true for cars due to the development of internal combustion engine. Steam cars are heavy and they do too much damage to the already uneven roads. In 1865, the Red Flag Acts imposes a speed limit of four miles per hour for the countryside and two miles per hour in towns. This effectively ends the popularity of motorcars, but some enthusiasts still have one, often homemade, like the Parsons’ vehicle.

On August 31, 1869, Mary and her husband, Henry, are travelling in it with the Parsons boys, Richard Clare Parsons and the future steam turbine pioneer Charles Algernon Parsons, and their tutor, Richard Biggs. She is thrown from the car on a bend in the road at Parsonstown, County Offaly. She falls under its wheel and dies almost instantly. A doctor who lives near the scene arrives within moments and finds her cut, bruised, and bleeding from the ears. The fatal injury is a broken neck.

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