Answer Man: 'Dashboard' has its roots in horse and buggy days

News-DemocratMarch 12, 2014 

Why do we call the instrument cluster in cars a "dashboard"? Now we use that name to describe an analytics display on a computer monitor, too. -- S.F., of Belleville

As I grew older, I remember occasionally rolling my eyes when my dad started talking about the horse and buggy days of his childhood on a rural Freeburg farm.

It just didn't seem relevant to me at the time, but for your question he could have given me an important history lesson on the evolution of four-wheel transportation.

If you're riding in a wagon being pulled by horses, what's going to happen? As the animals trot or gallop along, they're going to kick up dust and mud and things I don't even want to think about -- and it's all going to come flying back into your face. It would be like driving a convertible without a windshield, where you'd wind up picking bugs out of your teeth.

So, to cut down on the amount of this glop being pitched back into your buggy, people started installing a wooden board on the front (and sometimes the sides) of the vehicle. By as early as 1846, these were being called "dash-boards." In this case, "dash" means "to bespatter or splash (a thing) with anything (e.g., water or mud)," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So it means the board protected you from being dashed -- not that you were dashing through the snow.

If you're interested, the word "dash" is thought to be Swedish (daska) or Danish (daske) in origin. It meant something like "slap," and may have been coined from the sound of the blow itself. In any case, you maybe can see how it also came to mean "a small amount" (dash of salt) and a quick stroke of the pen (hence, one of the punctuation marks that Victor Borge loved).

In any case, when people started driving the first primitive cars, I guess that surface in front of the driver was more for protection than information. So dashboard (without the hyphen) was adopted as its name and kept for horseless carriages even as it filled up with tachometers, check-engine lights and other essential gizmos.

Now, of course, the term has been applied further to those video panels on your computer monitors. Seems we've come quite a way from when my dad was starting to feel his oats.

I hope you can explain what I found a little surprising about the utility relocation work that's being done for the street-widening project on Illinois 159 (Vandalia) in Collinsville. How was it possible for Ameren to install and connect new electric lines without disrupting or turning off power to residents and businesses? -- K.S., of Collinsville

Actually, the answer is not shocking at all, says Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch, so let me try to explain it with an example you might encounter any day in your own home.

As you probably know, your house has a number of circuits, each covering a certain major appliance or area. My own house, for example, has one for the furnaces, one for the kitchen appliances, etc.

If I have to work, say, on a basement outlet, I'll shut off that particular circuit in the breaker box so I'm not electrocuted when I start playing around with the wires. But let's say I want to continue listening to my radio while I work. What do I do? Why, I'd run an extension cord upstairs and plug it into an outlet on a live circuit.

Essentially, that's the answer to your question. Like your house, a city's power grid consists of numerous circuits. So, if Ameren knows that it has to shut down the circuit around Illinois 159 that powers your house, they'll quickly tie you and your neighbors into a working circuit nearby, say, for those around Illinois 157 or Belt Line Road.

"The way that our energy system is operated, we have, for lack of a better term, backup options," Bretsch said. "We want to get people back on as quickly and as safely as we can so we just simply shut down that circuit completely and tie it into another circuit."

So, as amazing as it might sound, you should experience only a couple of brief interruptions during even such a complex project.

"When we took the service out of commission, there was probably a blip on the radar screen," Bretsch said. "They came home and maybe their clocks were blinking, because their power was out for about three minutes while we hooked them into another circuit. Then it came right back on.

"Sometimes it's a month to do the work, sometimes it's six months. But when we're ready to put the new line back into service, we'll switch back and there'll be probably another two- to three-minute interruption. Those are the only interruptions customers should see."

Today's trivia

During what war was the famous Battle of the Herrings fought?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: People might look at you funny, but if you were a Chiquita employee, you might find yourself calling a bunch or cluster of bananas a "hand." The individual bananas would be the "fingers."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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