Dec. 6, 1897: London first licenses motorized taxis

Christy Karras

London’s black cabs are some of the city’s most beloved icons, and for good reason. Drivers are required to pass a test showing they know the locations of not just streets but also hospitals, parks, theaters and other landmarks throughout the city — studying for it typically takes three years. Anyone who’s had to whip out a smart phone to help guide a confused taxi driver can appreciate what’s known as “The Knowledge.”

Motorized cabs first came on the scene in 1897, but they were far from the city’s first. London had horse-drawn black cabs for hire as early as the 1600s. They were called “hackney carriages” (still the official name for hired cars). As one black-cab website puts it: “The name comes from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse. It literally means ‘ambling nag.’”

The first motorized cabs weren’t gasoline-powered: Until the internal-combustion engine first came on the taxi scene in the early 1900s, the so-called Bersey taxis (named for their inventor, Walter Bersey) ran on electricity. The low burble of their engines gave them the nickname “Hummingbirds.”

The iconic Black Cabs we associate with London ruled through much of the 20th century, although now many drivers favor van-like models that can fit more people and easily accommodate those in wheelchairs. The city has come full circle, in some ways: the latest innovation is a battery-powered cab that runs on hydrogen fuel.