The Shocking Case of the Manila Ambulance

De Dion-Bouton electric and petrol-powered vehicales werepopular in the Philippine around 1910. So much fun, apparently, they’d put your black chauffeur out of a job.

Sometimes one comes across a bit of information that makes one raise an eyebrow in surprise then, a moment later, makes one wonder why one was surprised in the first place. So it was when I discovered that the first motorised ambulances in Manila were not run on petrol or diesel but on electricity and steam.

Today, much is made of the new electric-powered jeepneys on city streets today, but the basic technology is more than 125 years old.

When I think of electric vehicles I think not of Tesla’s battery-powered sportscars but the humble British milk float. Early each morning this once-common vehicle delivered bottles of milk to nearly everybody’s doorstep from a little before dawn. Its characteristic sound was a faint thump as the drive engaged then a quiet hum and a rattle of glass bottles as it set off to its next delivery.

The loudest noise about it was often the whistling of the milkman.

Having once earned pocket money helping a milkman on his rounds, I still rescue a dropped bottle by putting my foot underneath it.

It was that silence that made electric ambulances ideal in the first two decades of 20th century Manila. But electric ambulances were not the only driving force in town, as we shall see.

It was steam-powered vehicles that gave us the word chauffeur, derived from a French term meaning someone who heats up the boiler for a steam-engined vehicle it lives on in Tagalog as tsuper.

And we may have a few more surprises.

Horse-drawn Bureau of Health Ambulance operated by the Ambulance Corps, mainly Filipinos.

We’ll be talking more about motor vehicles and the Philippines in later posts, for now, it is enough to say that by the end of the 19th century there was a race for supremacy to drive motorised transport between petrol, steam, and electricity.  Initially, the latter was on a winning streak.

Electric ambulances were increasingly common elsewhere in the world long before they appeared in the Philippines. The fatally-injured US President William McKinley was carried in one after being shot at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York by Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York by Leon Czolgosz.

There were three kinds of horse-drawn wagon used by hospitals in Manila up to 1908-1909: the ‘dead wagon’ for transporting the deceased, another for transporting people with contagious diseases, and ambulances operated by the Ambulance Corps for accident victims and transporting patients. Filipinos, apparently, did not like these ambulances.

In 1908 the Bureau of Health effectively damned the horse-drawn ambulances with faint praise: “The service… has been as satisfactory as could be expected from horse-drawn vehicles” and decided to replace them with motorised ambulances over time. It was awaiting the arrival of its first electric vehicle. 

The Philippines Commission report for the same year announced bigger plans: “The Bureau of Health provides ambulance service for the transportation of cases of dangerous, communicable disease, and of those for the Civil Hospital, while the police department transports emergency cases. Arrangements have been made for further improving facilities by establishing a central station near the Bridge of Spain where modern motor-car ambulances will be installed”.

That bridge, of course, leads on to the Escolta. The street was originally cobblestones, which were then replaced by wooden blocks, These blocks became a menace over the years and the commission proposed using wooden blocks impregnated with creosote under pressure.  The commission’s comments may explain why Filipinos were not very fond of ambulances: “When the Americans came to Manila they found a few of the principal streets of the city paved with large cobblestones over which the native vehicles rattled with careless abandon and deafening noise. In the Escolta and Calle Rosario, ambulances containing patients had to proceed at a walk even with emergency cases, in order that further injury might not be inflicted.”

Ambulances could be quite dramatic. Of the central station at the Bridge of Spain, the commission assured: “These will not be characterized by distress or horror signals and the clanging of bells, but will pass quietly through the city on their missions of mercy, without attracting attention. One of the first official acts of the present Director of Health was to eliminate the pyrotechnic display in the ambulance service.”

By 1909, the Bureau of Health had acquired two electric ambulances while the City of Manila had bought two steam-powered wagons which could be converted to use as ambulances when required. They wanted to find out which was more economical to run. The Bureau of Health had already decided that the steamers were more expensive. 

Electric ambulances at Philippine General Hospital, 1911.

Responsibility for the two electric ambulances was transferred to the Philippine General Hospital (“Where they belong” says that years Bureau of Health report) in 1910 and a special garage was built for them in September to where they were moved from the City stables.

These new ambulances were overcoming the Filipino dislike of such vehicles was fading with the quiet electric ambulances operated entirely by Filipinos in smart uniforms behaving with ‘strict decorum’ says the Bureau of Health, which makes one wonder what lacks of decorum were previously shown.

“The days of the old ambulance are over,” said the 1910 Bureau of Health Report but some horse-drawn ambulances would continue until 1913 when they were finally phased out.

Governor-General William Cameron Forbes spoke highly of the new electric ambulances in his report a year later. They and their Filipino crews were economical, effective, prompt, and comfortable. Manila’s ambulance service was comparable to those in larger cities elsewhere said Forbes as he ordered more of them. to handle patients with communicable diseases.

The electric ambulances were so successful that contracts to use horse-drawn wagons for contagious patients and what were called ‘Dead Wagons’ were cancelled and two more electric ambulances were added to the growing fleet and a petrol driven ambulances was added, which appears to have been manufactured by the US company GMC.

In 1912 the fleet of ambulances handled more than 2,000 routine patients and attended some 400 emergency cases.

Electric powered motor vehicles were starting to peak. Chain drives were replaced by worm gears, making them even quieter. But as Manila grew the limitations of the electrical vehicles became problematic: Their range was limited by the availability of recharging facilities. 

The Bureau of Health had its own power plant and the electrical ambulances were charged when there was less load on the plant, typically after office hours until the evening when the load increased. The need to recharge limited the range of the ambulances by there was increasing demand for services to the provinces.

By now petrol-engine technology was improving, with less noise and pollution, and greater economy although the insular government continued to rely on electric vehicles charged at the Insular Ice and Cold Storage Depot.

The Bureau of Health already had one petrol-driven ambulance, a GMC model and in 1915 decided to buy another one. A French company, De Dion-Bouton, won the contract to supply a purpose-built ambulance which travelled at 100 kph and sported a complete mini-hospital on its chassis. \

A corner had been turned and over the next decade electric ambulances all but disappeared entirely after 1923 to be replaced by Ford and GMC petrol-fueled vehicles. These were used extensively for transferring patients with leprosy from the provinces to San Lazaro Hospital and the Culion Leper Colony. They were also more suited to the provinces and places like Mindanao where electric power plants were few and far between and electrical distribution even thin on the ground.

By at least as early as 1930, th day of the electric ambulance was over, going to whatever transport heaven was now occupied by he old horse-dran ambulances of the turn of the century.

Today, of course, electric vehicles are fighting back after more than a century so maybe we will see electric ambulances back on the road.

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