Technological Object: Railroad Handcar

Early on in Tintin’s first adventure — Tintin au Pays des Soviets (1929-1930) — Hergé’s roving reporter finds himself mixed up in several railway-related scrapes. Having survived a Bolshevik bomb and a near-miss on a German level crossing, Tintin and Milou make good their escape from a Soviet guard-post just in time to see their train disappear into the distance. Undeterred, Tintin spots a solution in the form of a conveniently-placed chariot mécanique, or railway handcar, aboard which he furiously begins to row his way towards the speeding train. The effort, alas, proves rather too strenuous for the vehicle’s lever, which snaps off, hurling our hero on to the tracks. ‘Sale engin!’ growls Milou. ‘Lousy machine!’

Handcars began to appear on the railroads of the United States in the 1860s as a form of conveyance for maintenance workers and their tools. The exigencies of civil war made the railways more strategically important than ever before, and both North and South invested heavily in the expansion and upkeep of their infrastructure. Cobbled together in local railway maintenance sheds, early handcar models worked by means of a rotary crank, but after several deaths the more familiar ‘pump’-style cars became the norm, and were soon being produced in greater numbers. These improved models were intended for operation by two men, but some could carry whole crews across distances of several miles to repair sections of track. ‘In the virginal days of 1905’, writes Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry (1927), ‘section gangs went out to work on the railway line not by gasoline power but on a handcar, a platform with two horizontal bars worked up and down like pump-handles.’ By the 1920s, the presence of these machines already gestured nostalgically to a pre-Fordist era in which the subjection of human labour to machine-age temporality remained incomplete.

Tintin was not the first fictional rail-rider to suffer from a handcar’s mechanical failure. A great admirer of Buster Keaton, Hergé no doubt had in mind the sequence from The General (1926) in which railroad engineer Johnnie Gray, played with restrained frenzy by Keaton, runs after the eponymous train aboard which agents of the Union Army have imprisoned his fiancée. Coming upon a trackside maintenance shed he opens it to find a handcar, enabling him, after some initial difficulty, to continue the pursuit at a faster pace on the rails themselves.

Johnnie’s difficulty arises when the car begins sliding back on the rails towards him, and before he can work its mechanism he first has to give it a good shove in the right direction. Only after having worked up some momentum is he able to match the pumping of his arms to the rhythm required by the device. He makes a good job of it, whizzing along at a fair speed until at last being quite literally de-railed by Union sappers who have taken up part of the line.

Few vehicles have proven to have so much comedic value as the handcar, not only because its mechanical elements were always coming apart and foiling the best efforts of its operators, but because those efforts themselves required exertions of unparalleled absurdity. Handcars, better than most modes of transportation, instantiate Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy names a category of experience in which people are revealed to be like things, ‘that aspect of human events which, through its peculiar inelasticity, conveys the impression of pure mechanism, of automatism, of movement without life.’ By reducing the human body’s range of motion to a simple and unnatural action, handcars force human beings to imitate mechanical operations, to conform themselves to tempi set by engines of their own devising. Once achieved, that process can be difficult to reverse: one reason that handcars always go off the rails in the comedy of the 1920s is that their deceleration would be too awkwardly, laboriously dull for narratives that thrive on the thrill of the chase. Coming to earth with a bump, as Tintin and Johnnie do, may after all be an easier way of ending such a journey than the dehumanizing grind required to slow these lousy machines down.

What happens in that happy fall, of course, isn’t just comedy. Newly extricated from the unnatural mechanism in which they have willingly enmeshed themselves, Johnnie and Tintin are free to find a new, more agreeable way of doing things. Both, of course, go straight back to different sorts of mechanism. Johnnie commandeers a boneshaker bicycle; Tintin finds an engine in a pile of scrap and improvises a rail-riding automobile out of the remains of the handcar. Only after a final lesson in the perils of technology — Johnnie falls off the bike, Tintin comes a cropper thanks to the work of a forewarned saboteur — do they complete their journeys comfortably, on foot.

Not all handcar journeys end badly. While Tintin was en route to the USSR in the pages of the Petit Vingtième, cinema audiences in the United States were watching Mickey and Minnie Mouse duetting in Mickey’s Choo Choo (1929). Riding atop the caboose of Mickey’s locomotive, they tap and fiddle their way through ‘Dixieland’ until the struggling train comes to a halt on a steep hillside. The caboose rolls off, with Minnie clinging to the roof. Giving his best Keaton impression, Mickey chases down the runaway car until an encounter with a tree sends the carriage — and the two mice — flying through the air. When it comes to earth, it does so in the form of a very handcar-like see-saw, upon which Mickey and Minnie ride off into a tunnel. Perhaps the handcar ride ends happily for Mickey and Minnie simply because there are two of them: unlike Johnnie and Tintin in their improvisational encounters with railway technology, they can share the effort of making the thing move. As they do so, their playful see-sawing converts recalcitrant mechanism into an excuse for pleasant recreation. Together, they make the best of it. Where Johnnie and Tintin suffer from their bodily subjection to the handcar’s mechanizing rhythm, Mickey and Minnie manage to animate the machine through sheer joie de vivre; far from being alienated by mechanism, they transform mechanism into the means, or medium, by which their duet at last becomes a physical bond.

—James Purdon

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12 Responses to Technological Object: Railroad Handcar

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  9. James Purdon says:

    What a terrific find, Ned. Thanks! So the original crank-driven handcar meets its musical match. I suppose part of the reason the handcar so often comes apart is that it isn’t as easy to put into reverse as the grind organ. Perhaps one thing these technologies do have in common, though, is their capacity to modify human tempo in some unnatural way. Bringing them together might suggest that what’s funny (and dangerous) in both cases is the diminishment of control that arises from mediation, since words (or tunes), like the exertions of the handcar operator, become harder to govern in proportion to the complexity of the mechanism that intervenes between them and their originators.

  10. Ned Allen says:

    This is brilliant, James! It reminds me of a story in _Boys’ Life_ (Aug. 1931) called ‘Two Reels with Sound Effect’, which centres on a fellow called Eddie who’s been seconded to Slateford Junction. Eddie fixes a grind organ to the bottom of a handcar, and so manages to turn mechanical effort into sweet music: ‘Down went the other handle; up came some more music. You could almost recognize the air by now. “Santa Lucia,” or maybe it was “Sidewalks of New York”‘. (Maybe not _that_ sweet, then…) The story ends with the reminder that ‘a hand-car can run one way as easy as the other’ (though Eddie muses that a grind organ can run both ways too, ‘but it don’t make pretty music doin’ it’). I wonder whether that’s part of the machine’s comedy — the potential for willed reversibility?

  11. David Trotter says:

    Yes indeed! Presumably the predisposition towards comic rather than tragic effect has something to do with the way in which cause has become disconnected from effect. You walk using your hands. Vigorous vertical movement produces a swan-like glide along the ground.

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