The Untold History of the First Driverless Car Crash—Part 1

In 1932, J.J. Lynch’s driverless car act was equal parts stunt show, technological wonder, and accident waiting to happen.

byBrett Berk| UPDATED Apr 3, 2018 12:16 PM
The Untold History of the First Driverless Car Crash—Part 1

J.J. Lynch was prepared for another stellar demonstration that summer afternoon at the Forney Airfield.

His business manager, William F. Rogge, had been in Hanover, Pennsylvania—a town of about 11,000 people, just five miles north of the Maryland border—for the past week or so, ever since their last performance in Wilmington, Delaware on July 21, 1932. Rogge played the role of advance man, arriving in town ahead of the talent to make arrangements, to hype the free show, and to line up local sponsors for necessary donations and publicity: The Good Brothers’ dealership for the Dodge follow vehicle, the H.M. Sterner showroom for the Chrysler lead car, Devener Auto Electric for the batteries, the Park Service Station for the tires, P.I. Wentz for the complimentary ice cream.

On the morning of the show, Lynch and Rogge had spent three hours installing and testing their $12,000 worth of proprietary radio control devices. Featuring an array of mechanical relay switches that could be manipulated from a distance, the equipment allowed any vehicle in which it was attached to start, drive, turn, honk its horn, flash its lights, and shut off without any humans on board. Their portable apparatus, which they carried from town to town, could turn any ordinary new car into a famed, driverless, J.J. Lynch Phantom Car.

This prep work had long since become standardized. In fact, according to Lynch’s later court testimony, he had performed this act around 150 times since the previous year, at sites all over the United States. He’d operated his Phantom Car on city streets and in open fields, in town squares and rural fairgrounds, and even on Capitol Plaza in Washington, D.C. He’d used a wide variety of makes and models of vehicle, and every conceivable body type, from a convertible to a truck. He’d even rigged the transponders up to a few tractors. And he’d controlled them all, without a single incident, from nearby: on foot, from a follow vehicle, and even from the air.

In the days before the event, the Hanover Evening Sun touted the impending arrival of the “driverless car” in two front-page articles. As word spread through town, residents became intrigued or skeptical, so Lynch and Rogge followed another timeworn routine, setting up the automobiles and the radio control switchgear they’d be using for inspection at a local retail establishment. In Hanover, the Dodge and Chrysler were on display the day before the performance at the Sterner showroom in the center of downtown. The public was invited to peruse the cars, one of which had been donated by Sterner’s shop, and perhaps check out one of the other new Chryslers for sale in the dealership, while they were there.

J.J. often offered a reward of up to $5000 to anyone who could discover a human component to the Phantom Car, drawing throngs of enterprising visitors to these businesses. No one had ever collected. Though the show was conceived as little more than a spectacle, a bit of entertainment, the technology behind it was sound. On the stand at his trial, Lynch presented the court with a sheaf of clippings, reportage of his exploits from national newspapers and scientific periodicals, evidence of his expertise.

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A parachute jump was scheduled for 3:00 that afternoon, and the headline act—control of the Phantom Car from an airplane flying 1000 feet overhead—was to take place at 4:00. By 2:00 when the warm up act, a car-to-car demonstration, was to occur, around 3000 people were already gathered around the airfield. The Phantom Car and the follow car were housed at the airplane hangars at the rear of the grounds, where thick crowds of spectators stood with their backs turned, watching planes taking off and landing and awaiting expectantly the skydiver who was to follow. State Aeronautics Commission member Lawrence B. Sheppard later testified that a proper waiver had been issued to use the airport for a demonstration in which a car could be controlled from a plane, but forms hadn’t been filed for using a car controlled from another car.

The presence of additional highway patrol officers had been requested for crowd control, but the cops were busy corralling a protest of Bonus Marchers in a nearby town—WWI veterans, like Lynch, who were out of work during the depression and looking for an advance on their assured government benefits. To fill-in for the police, Rogge had confirmed the assistance of some local Boy Scout troops, but they’d failed to materialize at the airport that afternoon.

Sensing the potential for trouble as the crowds around the Dodge and Chrysler crushed in, Sheppard headed toward the hangars to advise Lynch and his team to move their vehicles into the open field before beginning their demonstration. But before he could reach them, Lynch boarded and started the follow car, honked its horn repeatedly, and called to the throngs of viewers to make way.

Varied claims and excuses were made with regard to the mayhem that ensued: the makeshift pathway was too narrow, the attendees had not been properly apprised of the program, there were not enough officials present to direct the throngs. But everyone could agree on one thing, even Lynch and Rogge in their courtroom testimony. As soon as J.J. Lynch pressed the remote start button on his apparatus, the one that was intended to bring the Phantom Car to life and place it under the control of his transponder, the driverless car lurched away, beginning what the Gettysburg paper later called “its mad journey.”

Soon hitting speeds more than four times its intended rate, the Phantom Car almost immediately surpassed the limited distance from which Lynch could control it. Out of range of its electromagnetic tether, and with no one aboard to grab the wheel, stomp the brake, or switch off the ignition, the driverless car roared away from its operator and into the gathered crowd, where it could not be steered, controlled, or stopped.

J.J. Lynch was not always a radio engineer. In fact, he was never a radio engineer. He had dropped out of school after the fifth grade. His daughter Nina Stange described him as something of an autodidact. “Like a lot of men in that era,” she said, “he self-educated himself. He read and read and read.” But he had no formal training in any technical field. What he did have was a profound talent for connecting with people who did, collaborating with them, and garnering their confidence and expertise.

Yet his greatest aptitude was as a promoter. And he was, by far, his own best client.

John J. Lynch was born in Chicago in 1892. His father was a Naval officer, but ran off when young J.J. was just eight. His mother scraped together a living as a milliner, making custom hats for society ladies in New York. Without a father to support the family, once J.J. left school, he worked odd jobs in Chicago before skipping town, seduced in part by the Teddy Roosevelt administration’s romanticization of the vanishing frontier. He ended up out west, where he worked as a ranch hand, riding broncos and roping cattle. “All this stuff that young cowboys do,” Stange said. “And that’s how then he got into the rodeo business.”

By the mid Teens, Lynch was winning rodeo championships throughout the mountain Northwest, garnering regional and national medals, and prize money, in front of crowds of thousands in remote but thriving towns like Walla Walla, Washington, Miles City, Montana, Alberta, Canada, and Boise, Idaho. His specialty was bulldogging, a showy and often dangerous event in which a rider on horseback lassoes a steer, and then leaps down from his moving horse to wrestle the bull to the ground.

Like many riders, Lynch was often injured. But he had a knack for triumphing over his hardships. “First aid was administered in the medical tent,” reported Bozeman, Montana’s Anaconda

Standard, in August of 1919 after a steer summersaulted over J.J. at a local competition, tangling him and his horse in the ropes. “But Lynch presently appeared on the field to receive his prize with a bandaged head, and a smile.” The fact that he was tall, athletically built, blond haired and blue eyed, certainly didn’t hurt his popularity. The crowds loved him.

Lynch put his rodeo skills to the service of his country during World War I, when he served at the remount center in Fort Keogh, Montana. The base was America’s key wartime equine distribution and training site, and he worked there breaking and drilling horses for the cavalry and for transport and supply line applications.

After his military service, Lynch took his show on the road, moving to southern California to work as a “strong man” (stuntman) in the early Hollywood silent films, performing in western movies for Goldwyn, Lasky and other producers. “They were all cowboy stunts and things like that, off of horses,” Stange said. “He did stunts off of motorcycles too.” Lynch earned his SAG card as a member of the Riding Actors Association, and befriended forgotten period stars like Milton Sills, Jack Holt, Monte Blue, and William Boyd, as well as well known players like Will Rogers and Academy Award-winning stuntman and actor Yakima Canutt, who remained a lifelong friend.

But it was in his return to the rodeo circuit in the late Teens that Lynch first melded his love of showmanship, his skills as a daredevil, and his growing affection for motorized vehicles. In the summer of 1919, he helped to pioneer the practice of bulldogging from a motorcycle or from the hood of a moving car. “Combining the skill of the frontiersman with the love of something new,” as the Wyoming State Tribune described it. During the early Twenties, he would add the running board or front bumper of a moving car to his repertoire of locales from which he’d leap, earning him the first of many nicknames or aliases, “Wild Jim” Lynch, as well as a slew of serious injuries: a shattered shoulder, a broken clavicle.

The crowds grew larger and larger. At the Elks’ national convention in Chicago in 1920, Lynch performed his motorized bulldogging stunts in downtown’s Grant Park for some of the 500,000 members who’d gathered in the Windy City. The car added speed to Lynch’s spectacle, along with another important element of modern technology: its inherent ability to elide. “Folks were so busy trying to determine which was the wildest—the auto, the steer, or Jim—that before they knew it, the whole thing was over,” reported the Omaha Sunday World Herald of one of Lynch’s motorized rodeo performances in the spring of 1924.

Realizing that the rodeo portion of his show added unnecessary complexity, as well as ghettoized him in an archaic western sideshow culture, Lynch soon ditched the horses, and began simply performing acrobatic stunts from the front bumpers of moving cars—somersaults, flips, and leaps. This was all well and good until he was run over by the front wheel of one of his stunt vehicles in Riverton, Wyoming in 1928, crushing his left leg. Lynch was in the hospital for three months, and purportedly couldn’t walk for a year, leading him to look for a new gig. “Something else sensational,” he later said.

Sensation sold. This was an era when live entertainment, in all its forms, from opera to orchestras, was being squeezed out by radio and the movies. Spectacle—stunt flyers, crash-em-up derbies—were one of the means to draw a big crowd. Every town had a fairground of sorts, and spectators were eager to see the latest extravaganza. But they were also interested in the underlying innovation. This was an optimistic time in American industrialization when the future began to seem possible, when a train could take you nearly anywhere, when even a working person could own their own car, when the big dreams drawn up by visionaries like DaVinci could be solved, or at least attempted.

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In 1931, Lynch happened upon endurance driving. He claimed to have completed seventeen drives of one hundred hours or more, piloting a car for five days without sleep. “They’d handcuff me to a wheel and tell me to lose myself for a few nights,” he said. This practice earned him another nickname, “Fearless Jim.”

It was around the time that he was completing these distance drives that he met Robert E. Autrey. The circumstances of their meeting are not exactly clear. In later years, Lynch would tell a story of their making acquaintance on a train, and his coming to Autrey’s rescue by loaning him twenty-eight dollars to get his equipment out of hock at a remote Texas railroad office. But it seems likely that Lynch obfuscated the nature of their initial connection to bolster his claims on the equipment he popularized.

However it was that they met, two things are certain: Robert Autrey was the inventor and developer of the radio control devices that operated the Phantom Car; and, in at the early press demonstrations of these fantastic contraptions, Autrey is clearly in charge of the act and Lynch is referred to as his “assistant.”

Robert E. Autrey was a legitimate radio engineer with decades of experience tinkering with the emergent technology. Autrey had been working most recently for a commercial broadcast radio station, but he was previously employed as a radio instructor for the World War I-era United States Shipping Board Service, a radio trainer for the Merchant Marine, and a radio inspector for the military’s advanced communication wing, the United States Signal Corps. He held three governmental patents from 1924 and 1928 for operating an automobile by radio control and flying an airplane by radio. And he had an apparatus he wanted to demonstrate, but clearly needed some assistance in putting on a show, alerting the press, and drawing a crowd. However these two men met, their collaboration seemed well suited.

After more than two-dozen private practice runs, Autrey and Lynch’s first public demonstration took place on May 29, 1931 in Houston, Texas municipal airport before a crowd of 5000. As reported in regional newspapers like The San Antonio Light, as well as hobbyist publications like Radio World and Short Wave Craft, the first act involved the Phantom Car being operated from a stationary command truck in the middle of the field. A late model Ford outfitted with twin telegraph poles strung with lines front-to-rear, the driverless car was made to start and stop, traverse the runways, flash its lights, and honk its horn.

But the main event was the remote control of one plane from another. Equipped with a 315-pound system of radio receivers, switches, and batteries, the radio controlled plane “City of Houston” circled the field, turned, climbed, and descended, and tipped its wings at the gathered crowd. In order to meet governmental regulations, a licensed pilot was onboard, but he only handled the takeoff and the landing. Autrey only lost control once during the fifteen-minute flight, when the two planes became separated by a gap that surpassed the short wave’s half-mile range.

Autrey’s history with the military and his experience developing and promoting martial applications of new technologies had a significant influence on his vision of how this new system could be utilized. At this first demonstration, he explained to a reporter from Short Wave Craft that “the principle of radio control holds unlimited possibilities in time of war,” citing the ability to control dozens of planes, tanks, or armored cars filled with explosives, and sent over enemy lines.

In fact, the military had been working on very similar concepts for at least a decade. Following the invention of the first gyroscopic-based aviation “autopilot” in the Teens, and experiments with radio controlled planes, ships, torpedoes, and other weaponry in World War One, the military unveiled the first radio controlled vehicle in 1921—an eight-foot long three-wheeler shaped like a coffin.

As reported in the Ardmore, Oklahoma Daily Ardemoreite, on August 21, 1921, the vehicle was introduced to the public on the streets of Dayton Ohio, near McCook Field, a base that served as the research station for experiments in aviation for the Army Air Service—the precursor to the Air Force. Like Autrey and Lynch’s car and plane, it was manipulated from a follow vehicle, which needed to stay within around 100 feet of it. It rolled along, speeding up and slowing down. It honked its horn. Like Autrey and Lynch’s car, its main capability, as far as the public was concerned, seemed rooted in its capacity to startle, to be uncanny. But it also demonstrated that driverless vehicles were notable and newsworthy, and capable of drawing a crowd.

Autrey and Lynch and the United States Military were not the only ones working on such vehicles during the Twenties. In the summer of 1925, Francis Houdina, another Army engineer, equipped a Chandler sedan with a radio control contraption and operated it on the streets of New York City. As reported by papers as far away as San Bernadino, California, the car, which he christened “American Wonder,” rolled down Broadway, followed by another Chandler containing the operator and his gear, turning corners, slowing down, speeding up, and, of course, honking its horn. In a bizarre coda, Houdina ended up in a battle with famed magician Harry Houdini. Angered at the perception that his name was being utilized to promote this vehicle, in the last year of his life, Houdini sent Houdina threatening letters and then ransacked Francis’ offices and roughed him up. Houdini was eventually acquitted when Houdina failed to show up in court as plaintiff in his assault case against the escape artist.

In the fall of 1927, former Naval Radio Operator R.L. Mack demonstrated a radio-controlled car on the streets of Los Angeles. His device, which could be affixed to the steering column of any automobile, appeared in the March 1928 issue of Popular Mechanics. Starting in the spring of 1929, notices begin to appear of a “Phantom Car” fitted with Mack’s device and operated with his cooperation, performing in towns around the country. Like Lynch’s act, but predating it by a few years, these cars were controlled from a follow car or an airplane. Unlike Lynch, these vehicles were driven by a pretty Hollywood stunt pilot named Gloria Hall. Nicknamed “Radio Girl,” Miss Hall appeared with Mack during the late Twenties and early Thirties (and as late as 1939) throughout the United States—in Missouri, New York, Texas, Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas among others. Despite their similar movie stunt-person backgrounds, and the similarity of their acts, there is no evidence that Hall and Lynch knew each other.

Visionary theorists like Norman Bell Geddes and Buckminster Fuller imagined novel applications of automated vehicles and advanced roadways in the Streamline Moderne era, but none succeeded in creating much more than treatises and models for carnivals like the World’s Fair in Chicago (1933) and New York (1939.) It was Lynch, with his knack for reinvention, actualization, and relentless boosterism, and his innate understanding of how to please a crowd, who came to dominate the field of driverless car shows throughout the Thirties.

His partner Autrey was a military engineer, and thus thought in terms of practical and combative innovations: a fleet of unmanned aerial bombers or battleships. But Lynch, the promoter, knew that while a autonomous plane, flying far overhead and guided by a second manned plane, might bring great value to the Air Service, it did not make an observable spectacle. It was too far away, and lacked a proximal visual punch. It just looked like two planes flying. Once he and Autrey parted ways in the early Thirties, Lynch brought the show down to earth, and kept it there for the rest of the decade and beyond. In Lynch’s performances, the Phantom vehicle would always be seen up close, driving on its own, without a driver or anyone else on board. It served no practical purpose. But it was magic, and magic was what drew crowds.

During the Thirties, Lynch appeared with the Phantom Car in nearly every state in the union, on a seemingly endless tour with literally hundreds of stops. In 1931, he plowed a field with a radio-controlled “farmall” at the Illinois State Fair. In 1934 he and the Magic Car performed in Australia before the Duke of Gloucester, brother of King Edward of England, at the centenary of the founding of the city of Melbourne.

Regardless of location, the setup for each appearance was remarkably similar. Lynch, or his advance man, would come to town early to recruit local sponsors to cover all their material costs and pay their fees, providing the locale and equipment, down to the beverages they would drink. (“J.J. Lynch, operator of the car, will drink Coca-Cola provided by Koller Brothers, to steady his nerves during the trying venture,” reported the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Morning Herald, in the summer of 1932.) These sponsors would advertise the event widely in the local newspapers, often assembling their promotions into a full page advertorial, hawking their participation and that of their wares and inviting the public into their retail establishments in the days leading up to the event to check out the car and the equipment and meet the driver—and maybe, hopefully, buy something.

Often, a local newspaper itself would act as Lynch’s core sponsor, and would run non-stop coverage in the lead-up to the event, amping up readers and helping to draw a crowd with interviews, route maps, equipment descriptions, and promotion of the participation of local politicians and other notables. When Lynch and the “Magic Car” came to Yonkers, New York in the summer of 1936, the Herald-Statesman, under whose auspices the visit had been arranged, published no fewer than seven front-page articles.

A peripheral message of safety often crept into newspaper writers’ early editorializing on Lynch’s invention, questioning whether a driverless car would be less accident prone than one with a human at the wheel. Announcements regarding the Phantom Car often appeared alongside coverage of horrific and lethal car crashes (“Funeral at Somerset for Accident Victim” Zaneville Signal, “Archer Held in Accident Case” Charlotte Observer) which by 1930 were already numbering in the tens of thousands annually.

J.J. had done his time in the decidedly analog worlds of bulldogging, stunt-manning, and in the military, and had suffered the very physical consequences. Now the public face of a radical product at the forefront of an emergent technology, he struggled to adopt the evangelical tone of the convert: the belief in scientific progress, and its ultimate triumph over human error. As with so many other contemporary devices that enhanced automation and undermined individuality, Lynch and his invention were occasionally linked with questions about the future of American freedom. In 1931, Radio World lumped its coverage of the Phantom Car in with a piece on emergency preparedness experiments in neo-Fascist Italy in which drivers were given requisite commands by radio and forced to obey. The article warned of the dangers faced in “the control of human beings by a central authority.”

Despite these more ominous overtones, Lynch did his best to keep the show light and fun. Seated at a table behind a radio transponder, or standing with a foot on the running board of a 1932 Pontiac sprouting a giant ball-shaped metallic antenna from its rear, he reveled in his performances being praised for their “ghostly quality” for being “one of the most unusual sights to ever be seen locally,” to being heralded as “one of the most interesting scientific exhibits of the age.”

Lynch wasn’t in this to make a point, to change the world. He was in it solely for the spectacle. Then the accident in Hanover occurred.

Continute to Part 2 here.