One day in early July
1894, two entrepreneurs from Hamburg named
Bruhn and Westendorf attended a meeting at the Board of Trade in
London concerning their device, called a taxameter-fare indicator.
According to The Illustrated Police News of 7 July, the two men
explained that the instrument showed how many passengers were being
carried, the fare to be paid, the number of trips made by the cab
and the miles traversed in the course of the day. They claimed it
had already been adopted in cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen
and Dresden and that local authorities were making its adoption a
condition of granting licences.
The wheels turned slowly in the Board of Trade and it was not until
March 1899 that the first cabs fitted with them came into regular
use in the capital. The delay was partly the result of opposition
by the London Cab Drivers Union, which was deeply suspicious of the
potentially adverse implications for their members' livelihoods of
accurately recording drivers' takings. Northern cities such as
Liverpool, Bradford, Manchester and Leeds were ahead of London (as
were New York and Buenos Aires). General public satisfaction with
the meters was reported. Passengers preferred the new taxameter-
fitted cabs because they obviated arguments with bullying cabbies
about fares. Cabbies were happy, too, as relations with customers
had improved, their takings had gone up and the level of tips had
remained the same.
The German name of "Taxameter", at first adopted in Britain, was
taken from "Taxe", a charge or levy. After the device became common
in Paris (another city that was well ahead of London), the French
created the term "taximètre" for it, from "taxe", a tariff (why the
"e" should change to an "i" is unrecorded). Partly in consequence
of patriotic feelings, coupled with anti-German sentiment (the
Yorkshire Post commented sourly in June 1894 that it trusted that a
system for charging fares might be introduced "without it being
found necessary to resort to a German arrangement"), the French
term proved popular. In the Anglicised spelling "taximeter" it was
used in a London newspaper in 1898 even before the metropolitan
meters, of the German type, had gone into operation. "Taximeter"
soon permanently replaced the German name.
These early devices were, of course, fitted to horse-drawn hansom
cabs or growlers (so called because of the noise their iron-hooped
wheels made on London cobbles). There was some argument over what
to call these new metered vehicles. While the official designation
for any vehicle plying for hire was "hackney carriage", everybody
called them "cabs" (a short form of "cabriolet", the French name
for a light horse-drawn two-wheeled vehicle, a term indirectly
borrowed from the Latin word for goat because of its bounding
motion). A metered hire vehicle was clearly enough a "taximeter
cab", but this was too unwieldy for daily use.
Motorised vehicles began to appear in substantial numbers during
the first decade of the new century, all being fitted with meters
from the outset. In March 1907, the Daily Chronicle remarked that
"Every journalist ... has his idea of what the vehicle should be
called" and went on to list motor-cab, taxi-cab, and taximo among
the options touted. ("Motor-cab" had been recorded as early as 1897
in London and soon after in Washington DC, but for an electric hire
vehicle, not the internal combustion one that had almost totally
usurped it by this date.) By November 1907 the Daily Mail had begun
to refer to a "taxi", in inverted commas as befitted a colloquial
term not yet admitted to the standard lexicon. In February 1908,
the Daily Chronicle noted that the issue had been resolved: "Within
the past few months the 'taxi' has been the name given to the
motor-cab." Since then, of course, it has spread greatly, though
never ousting "cab" from the language.
That isn't the whole story. Of the words on the list that the Daily
Chronicle produced in March 1907, one other did well, though not in
the UK. "Taxicab" is on record from as early as December 1907 in
New York and it has survived in the US.