The Untold History of the First Driverless Car Crash—Part 2

Demonstrating a technology ahead of its time, J.J. Lynch was asking for disaster.

First autonomous car crash
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Unbridled, unmanned, and literally out of control, Lynch’s Phantom Car plowed into the crowd of 3000 on Forney Field at speeds of up to thirty miles an hour. In the course of its rogue trajectory, the driverless Chrysler struck nearly a dozen shocked onlookers, who could not predict either its sudden appearance or its erratic movements, and who, despite their best efforts, had no way of signaling for it to stop.

Read Part 1 of this story here.

One of the first spectators to be hit was Walter Weaver, a sixteen year-old local boy who was run down by the Phantom as he stood along the path on which the cars were meant to travel. Weaver sustained the most serious injuries of those maimed in the incident—a fractured skull—damage that was no doubt compounded when, in Lynch’s desperate attempt to maintain radio contact with the runaway vehicle, the Dodge follow car he was driving also accidentally ran over the teenager.

D. Manassa Reed, who had come up from Manchester, Maryland for the demonstration, was talking with David Ebaugh, a fifty-three year-old Hanoverian, when the Phantom Car plowed into them. Ebaugh incurred fractures in his right leg and arm as he was launched from the car’s path. Reed threw up his hands up in terror, but it did not prevent him from being struck as well. He was flipped onto the car’s long hood, carried for some distance, and then tossed to the ground, causing injuries to his legs that precluded his ability to walk unassisted.

Forty-five year-old local Herbert Hershey saw the vehicle rampaging toward him from a distance of about forty feet, but was unable get out of its way due to the crush of people all around. The front of the car hit him in the hip and leg, spinning him off balance and down, so that as it passed by him, the rear of the car also struck his upper body. He incurred severe scalp lacerations, and bruising to his legs, shoulder, and head.

A half-dozen others attendees sustained lesser physical injuries. Abraham Keagy, a twenty-one year-old auto mechanic and motorsport aficionado who often went out to see the local car races, was struck in the right leg. Brothers John and Ellwood Stair received multiple contusions and lacerations. Bernard Oaster’s left foot was banged up. Perhaps most dramatically, one-and-a-half year-old Myrtle Eichelberger was catapulted out of her pram when the Phantom Car collided with it. According to witnesses, the infant’s carriage was tossed about twenty feet. Her mother suffered a back injury, and Myrtle’s tiny body was quite scraped up.

In an effort to reestablish radio contact and control, Lynch, at the helm of the Dodge control car, sped on. Desperate to prevent more collateral damage, or an explosion, he was focused only on catching up with his escaped Chrysler. Unfortunately, the driverless car’s sudden emergence and unpredictable behavior stunned onlookers, and in the wake of its passing, they froze, gathering in clumps between it and Lynch’s follow car, gaping and fanning themselves like witnesses to a séance. Lynch had to stop frequently, and the Phantom Car increased its lead until the distance was seemingly un-closable.

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Liberated from Lynch’s control, the Phantom Car followed a spasmodic path all its own, trailing along ruts in the ground, coursing though plowed fields and corn fields, leaping over a four-foot stream, and veering between trees, spectators, and parked cars. It eventually made its way out into the open dirt airstrips where the planes were meant to take off and land. Freed from the crowds’ obstructions, Lynch finally was able to get close enough to activate his transmitter. But despite his repeated attempts to deliver the radio signal that would cut power from the engine, he was unsuccessful. He either wasn’t close enough, or the car’s crazy ad-hoc route had jostled loose the receivers that translated his inputs.

The Phantom Car’s forward progress could not be stopped by any human intervention. It ceased its relentless sprint only when it crashed into a parked touring car belonging to Leo Markle, a local resident. Given the force of the impact, the Markle car was pushed into another vehicle belonging to Charles Verner. Both of these parked cars were seriously damaged, but the driverless vehicle was seemingly unharmed. Even after it came to a rest, its wheels were still spinning, its tires smoking, and coolant was spewing from its radiator like an animal shot but unwilling to give up the fight. An onlooker named Glenn Mummert eventually hopped into the Chrysler and turned it off. Lynch followed when he finally arrived on the scene, disconnecting the batteries and withdrawing his equipment in an effort to rescue it, and keep it from bursting into flames.

The entire madcap sprint lasted around seven minutes.

Oddly enough, according to newspaper reports, there was very little in the way of panic. Having come to see a “driverless car” perform, many of the attendees apparently believed that Lynch had maintained control of the vehicle throughout the performance, and that the Phantom crazy behavior was all a planned part of the thrilling spectacle.

The police thought otherwise. Lynch and Rogge were immediately arrested on the dual charges of assault and battery and aggravated assault and battery with an automobile, and locked up in the local jail. A Hanover cigar-store owner, George W Howe, posted the $2000 bond for Lynch, but Rogge remained in custody, and was moved to the County pen at York, until the hearing before the Justice of the Peace, almost two weeks later, on the evening of August 11.

At that inquiry, Rogge was acquitted and set free, since Lynch admitted that he alone was in complete command of the vehicle, and responsible for its operation. In his testimony, Lynch spoke eloquently in his own defense, proclaiming his innocence and that of his system. The radio control mechanism, he enunciated for a capacity crowd that spilled over into the public square, was incapable of accelerating (or decelerating) the vehicle. The car’s carburetor had been limited, by a local mechanic, to run at only seven miles per hour. So the fault, he claimed, must lie with some mechanical defect in the car itself. “Just what the defect might have been,” the Hanover Evening Sun opined, “Lynch said he was unable to suggest.”

Those witnesses who were well enough detailed their injuries for the court, some like D. Manassa Reed hobbling up on crutches. But some—like David Ebaugh, and the brain damaged teen Walter Weaver, were still in the hospital and unable to testify. “Boy near death,” the Evening Sun trumpeted in an earlier headline. In fact, Weaver survived the incident, but when he died twenty-six years later, in the Pennsylvania state mental institution in Harrisburg, his death certificate noted that he had suffered from a lifetime of

“chronic brain syndrome with brain trauma.”

Once all of the witnesses had been allowed to speak, the Justice of the Peace announced that the trial would be suspended, to allow him time for a consultation with a third party radio expert. Lynch posted bail a second time, and was freed on his own reconnaissance for the next two weeks.

Mayor Anstine of nearby York, PA withdrew permission for a Phantom Car demonstration scheduled to take place downtown on August 02, just two days after the crash. But beyond that, J.J. seemed to have abided the classic showbiz dictate, and decided that the show must go on. On August 12, the morning after he appeared before the Justice of the Peace in Hanover, the Altoona Tribune, hyped a display by Lynch and the Phantom Car in Altoona, Pennsylvania, about 150 miles away. No mention was made of the Hanover incident or the related trial.

A week and a half later, on August 23, while he was out on bail a second time awaiting the judge’s final decision, the Uniontown Herald announced that Lynch would be performing with the Phantom Car in the city center, about two hundred miles west of Hanover. Again, no mention was made of the recent disaster, despite the fact that it had been widely reported in regional newspapers from larger cities like Haggerstown, Maryland and Washington, D.C. It was noted, however, that Mayor Hatfield and other town notables would be riding along in the control car with Lynch.

Details of the court’s consultation with the radio expert were never made public, and these records are not available in the York County courthouse’s extensive collections, many of which date back to the pre-Revolutionary War era. Apparently, they were convincing, because at the final hearing before the Justice of the Peace on August 26, all charges against Lynch were dropped for “lack of sufficient evidence.” It seems likely that the court could not substantiate an intentional or reckless nature to Lynch’s behavior, necessary in this type of assault charge. The case was dismissed, and Lynch went free.

The Phantom Car ran down nearly a dozen people in Hanover, causing permanent injury in many and likely holding key responsibility in the eventual death of one. But binding legal liability could not be ascribed. Like in so many mishaps involving new technologies, the contemporary procedures and regulations had not yet caught up with the emerging reality, so there was no principle which to pin a conviction. No one was to blame. It was just an accident.

The car’s wild run lived on in the memories of some of those who were there, but only vaguely. Though he’d long since passed away, Abraham Keagy’s daughter said that he’d occasionally discussed the incident with his family. “He was scared because the car came flying at him and another person,” she said. “Luckily he really wasn’t injured badly because he fell into someone behind him and they both went down. It wasn’t traumatic enough to stop him from attending car races and other automotive events.”

Little Myrtle Eichelberger recovered completely from her injuries, to the point where it seems no one even bothered to inform her of her involvement. When contacted recently at a Pennsylvania senior center and asked about any family lore connected to the wreck, the eighty-five year-old Eichelberger—the only surviving attendee at the ill-fated event—demurred. “I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “I would have just been a little baby then.”

Likewise, the incident vanished from the historical record. Despite a subsequent decade of near constant coverage of the Phantom Car and its activities, once the trial ended, no mention was ever made of the accident again, until now.

Lynch continued his Phantom Car demonstrations throughout the 1930s. Some time after the accident, he donned an Admiral’s cap, and begun referring to himself as “Captain” J.J. Lynch, his latest costume in a lifelong drama of self-invention. After that he was often referred to as a “radio engineer,” “radio electrician,” or “radio control expert.” He was often credited as “the inventor” of his device. In a 1932 article touting an appearance in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was named as “the man who invented remote control of battleships.”

Lynch was married in 1933 and on occasion his wife (also named Nina) appeared in publicity photographs in a bomber jacket and an aviator’s leather helmet and goggles, where she is described as his driving assistant or as the pilot of the control plane. His daughter Nina, born in 1935, recalled fondly being on the road with her father. “I think I got to visit with him more than my kids whose dad came home every night, because in the summer he would pick us up, and we’d travel with him wherever he was going,” Stange said.

For a stretch of time in the mid-Thirties, Lynch was partnered up with Burnett Merrell Frazer, a professional Radio Technician, HAM radio enthusiast, and eventual cable television pioneer. Evidence suggests that in or around 1935, they embarked on a cross-country trip, allegedly sponsored by the Nash Motor Company, which provided a $5000 reward to anyone who could discover a human hand in the robot car’s operation. Newspapers reported on their presence in sites ranging from Phoenix, Arizona to Manitowac, Wisconsin, tracing the historic path of one of the nation’s first cross-country byways. In a 1935 interview in the Belvidere, Illinois Republican-Northwestern, Lynch claimed that he’d been working with Nash for four years, and visited thirty states with the marque’s vehicles.

Frazer’s stepson, Steve Pittsenbarger, said that Frazer had corroborated this adventure. “He told me that and another fellow had set up a remote control for a vehicle. They demonstrated it all the way across the country, but most of it occurred on Route 66.” Frazer informed Pittsenbarger that the driverless car had had another incident in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “They were at a stoplight, and it occurred there. I think the car hit the car in front of it,” Pittsenbarger said. “I asked him, Well, did the cops have to come? And he said, no, it wasn’t that much of an accident. And of course, back then, the car, if they just rear-ended somebody at a low speed, there would be no damage like there is today. He was pretty proud of that.”

In their coverage of Lynch’s car during this era, reporters frequently editorialized. They would discuss the nation’s high rate of vehicular fatalities. (“More people are killed on the road in this country in one year, than American soldiers killed in one year of war.”) Or they would discuss driver error, in contrast to the car’s adherence to the rules of the road. (“It never jumps a yellow light. It always takes the inside lane on a street when making a left turn.”) In the years after the accident in Hanover, this message of automotive safety became a more overt element in Lynch’s own take on his driverless vehicle, if not the core focus of his pitch. The name of the car itself was softened as well, from the slightly menacing Phantom Car, to the more accessible and wondrous Magic Car.

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When he visited Yonkers, New York in the summer of 1936, as in other localities during this time, his visit was touted as a “Safety Demonstration.” While giving a lecture to the public about roadway etiquette, Lynch was, according to reports in the local newspaper, “asked a hundred-and-one questions” about the future of automotive safety and technology. “Do you think we’ll ever see driverless cars on the road in the future?” one crowd member asked. “Are you developing a Magic Eye that will be fitted to the front of an automobile to bring machines to a quick stop when the beam comes in contact with a human being?” another prescient Yonkersite wondered.

A retrospective of Lynch’s life published in the local Herald-Statesman during this visit is titled “Career Taught Magic Car Driver Safety.” In it, J.J. sensationalizes the dangers of his various death-defying vocations, but ends with his admonishment about the greater hazards of contemporary roadways. “Driving a car nowadays is more technical and nerve-wracking than throwing steers,” Lynch opines. “It’s more dangerous on the highways than on the rodeo grounds.”

These safety demonstrations continued throughout the late Thirties and the start of the Forties, with Lynch conducting educational discussion forums and performances all around the country—sometimes lasting a full week or more in a location—and using the radio controlled car to teach proper driver behavior. During this phase, he often visited area high schools to teach safe driving to teenagers, under the auspices of local police forces and a generic-sounding organization he called the National Safety Crusades. The NSC may have been another fabulous Lynch invention, as the only historical mentions of it are those associated with his appearances. It seems ironic that in the years after the crash, Lynch and his Phantom Car became a symbol of safety. Was he attempting to ease a guilty conscience? Or was he just espying a new opportunity?

Lynch’s final performance with the Phantom/Magic Car was a Safety Parade in Orange, Texas. “The driverless auto is used to demonstrate that wrecks are not the fault of the automobiles, but of the drivers,” the Orange Leader, reported as part of its weeklong coverage. The parade took place on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

All non-essential applications of motor vehicles, including Lynch’s performances, were suspended immediately, as materials needed for military production, were commandeered for the war effort. Lynch’s show disappeared. But military advancements like radar and magnetic guidance took root in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, and when the war ended, these driverless vehicle technologies began to find their way into futuristic ideals for civilian applications.

General Motors’ traveling Motorama exhibit, with its dreamy fantasies of automated roads and vehicles, was little more than a delusion given the scientific realities of the time. But computing power and portability increased exponentially during the Space Age, and could realistically be harnessed to a vehicle, cars could actually be made to drive themselves in very limited circumstances. Though processing capacity has increased significantly in recent years, it still does not approach the level required to solve for the multifarious complexities on our roads. Today’s “autonomous” cars can do a bit more than Lynch’s, and they can do it on their own, but as we have recently become well aware, phantom issues remain.

Though he had no experience as a seaman, aside from his Admiral’s costume and vague family history in Annapolis, as American involvement in World War II ramped up, Lynch took up an opportunity presented by a friend and moved himself, his wife, and his six-year-old daughter to Houston to work in the shipyards. Nina would call Houston her home for the rest of her childhood, through high school and college, and though J.J. maintained a home in Texas with his wife for the rest of his life, he could not be tied down to anything resembling a staid job.

Lynch had taken up golf in the 1930s, and though he demonstrated the same natural talent for the game that he showed for so many other things in his life, he was steered out of it because he was left-handed. In its place, as his work with the Magic Car wound down, he took up archery. By the immediate post-War era, in the mid-Forties, Lynch was performing at local fairs, high schools, and sportsman shows all around North America. Many of these performances showcased similar showmanship and messages of his late Magic Car demonstrations, meant to illustrate the proper and improper way to use a bow and arrow, and any other weapon.

“He’d go to a lot of schools and he’d give demonstrations on safety, using the bow and arrow.” Stange said. Lynch would go through an act of putting an apple on a child’s head, and pretending he was going to shoot it off, before removing it, and instructing the crowd. “I’m here to teach you safety. You don’t ever want to put anything on anybody and try to shoot it off, no matter what it is or how big it is.”

By the dawn of the Fifties, Lynch was a bona fide archery star. In 1950, Columbia Pictures made a nine-minute film about him, King Archer that played as a short subject before feature films. He appeared on “The Fred Murray Show,” an early television variety show. He even appeared on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.” His daughter recalled visiting the set. “I can’t say that I liked Ed Sullivan very much, but he was quite a character, and my classmates were thrilled that I got to meet him.”

Lynch continued delivering demonstrations, and performing in state and local fairs, almost up until his death in 1962 at the age of 69. He never lost his love of performing, or his capacity for reinvention. But despite any mishaps, his decade with the driverless car was one of his favorite eras. Perhaps it was because it reflected the ultimate confluence of his love of speed, danger, and the next big thing. Perhaps it was because it gave him the opportunity to make a point and teach a lesson. Or, perhaps because it was, like most new inventions with which we become enamored, a frivolity, a diversion, something that’s impossibly compelling just because it exists.

“The Phantom Car was something he was really proud of,” his daughter Nina said. “I think he was an inventor at heart. I guess today they would of called him an entrepreneur. He liked to develop new things,” she said. “And the Phantom Car seemed to be a really big thing, because I’ve met people about his age, and even a little younger, and they remember the Phantom Car. Apparently he was in towns where they were, so, I guess they came out to see it. Wasn’t that during the years when people used to sit on flagpoles and do all types of crazy things?”