Ray Harroun And His Famous Rear-View Mirror

I can remember the argument like it was yesterday.  It wasn’t really an argument I guess, but my then mother-in-law would not believe that when you looked in your rear, or side, view mirror, the person in the car behind you was driving on the wrong side of the vehicle.  It is a mirror, after all, so the image you see is reversed.  Maybe it wasn’t a big deal that she believed or not, but we actually went out to the street, she sat in her VW Bug, and I pulled my VW Bug up behind her and sat in the driver’s seat.  

“You see, I’m on the wrong side of the car,” I yelled out the rolled down window.  No power windows on the 1968 Beetle.

“No you’re not,” she yelled back.

“I am so.  Look.  I’m on the wrong side.”  She never believed.

It came up again this morning when I was sitting in a parked car looking in the rear-view mirror and the driver of the van behind me got out on the wrong side of the vehicle.  I thought he was a passenger in the “DirecTV” van, and I was confused for a moment and had to look out the rear window, to see indeed, that he had gotten out on the right, or driver’s side of the vehicle, not the left as it appeared.

I brought it up later in the day at the dinner table,  and the same disbelief occurred almost unanimously.  People just don’t want to believe it.  It’s the reason they spell “Ambulance” on the front of the ambulance, this way, “ecnalubma” so it looks right when you look in the rear-view mirror.

.syas ti tahw ees ylisae ll’uoy dna rorrim a ot pu egassem siht dloH  We used to do it all the time when we were kids to share secret messages in class.  The problem with this is the words are right when held up to a mirror, but the letters are backwards, so you had to do that transition in your head.  I wasn’t good at writing letters backward as well as the words, but it can be done.  So, just like we do with the rear-view mirror image, we have trained our brains to see the image behind us correctly, even though it’s not.

 To take this even further, why is the image reversed right-to-left, but not up-and-down?  In actuality it is.  When you look in your rear-view mirror, and then turn around on a vertical axis to look out the rear window, you are moving on a vertical axis, so the image is clearly reversed right-to-left.  However, if you turned about on a horizontal axis, the image you see out the back window would be upside down, reversed top-to-bottom.  In other words, you’re kind of standing on your head or leaning way backward but it’s fact.  Truth be told, the mirror does neither though, it reverses the image front-to-back.

I remember from my days of fascination with the Indianapolis 500, that the first use of the rear-view mirror was by Ray Harroun in his Marmoun “Wasp” Model 32 race car at the inaugural run of the 500 in 1911.  He did it to eliminate the need, and the weight, of the second person who normally sat in the passenger side of a race-car, the mechanic.  The mechanic would  manually pump oil into the vehicle, verbally give commands and positions of the following cars to the driver who was responsible for looking ahead.  Twelve of these riding mechanics died in the race or in practice runs through 1939.  Harroun won the inaugural race with an average speed of 74.62 mph.

At least the riding mechanic had a seat in the vehicle by 1911.

This didn’t immediately change the way race-cars were made, and not many others thought the rear-view mirror was a good replacement for that second rider either.  It didn’t phase out until the 1940s. 

Marmon "Wasp" Race car number 32

Marmon "Wasp" Race car number 32 That little box on stilts in front of the steering wheel is the rear-view mirror.(Photo credit: momentcaptured1)

 This is just another example of the trove of useless information that I have stored away in my head.  Easily retrievable, at least for now, for those moments when I feel the need to astound people with my knowledge of things, things like when was the first rear-view mirror used in a race car.  There is some conjecture about the subject though and it involves a woman driver.  According to Wikipedia, Dorothy Levitt, in her book “The Woman and the Car,” published in 1906, suggested that women “carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving” so they may “hold the mirror aloft from time to time in order to see behind while driving in traffic.”  Personally, I think they should keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes  on the road in front of them.  WTF.  The rear-view mirror was in general manufacture by 1914.  Even Ray Harroun himself, said that he had seen the mirror used on a horse cart, which is how he got the idea.

Now if that isn’t trivia enough for you when rear-view mirrors come up in conversation, I don’t know what is.  And go out and get into your car and look at all the driver’s on the wrong side of vehicles behind you.  You might have to consciously force your brain to understand that the driver is on the wrong side.  Just like when you comb your hair in the mirror, you adjust the motion to suit the reverse image.  Okay, enough already.



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10 responses to “Ray Harroun And His Famous Rear-View Mirror

  1. Shannon

    When I read that the mirror was to eliminate the need for the second person. I couldn’t help but laugh and think that it hasn’t worked that well. When I read that the mirror was to eliminate the need for the second person. I couldn’t help but laugh and think that it hasn’t worked that well. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked as a passenger “is it clear?” This of course leads me to turn and look at which time I’m reprimanded because I am blocking the view. Do you want me to tell you whether it’s clear or don’t you?
    I actually learned a couple of years ago that I am expected to sit all the way back and look over my right shoulder out the backseat window. Either way, there is still a need for the second person, at lease when a man is driving.

  2. How entertaining AND educational this post was. It is amazing how our perception of reality rules what we think we see! I never thought about the rear view reversal thing. In my head, I know you are correct, though. I know because, I have struggled to do things like cutting the hair at the back of my head using a mirror. What a disaster. Same for trying to fasten a necklace while looking in the mirror. I sure never knew that about passengers in racecars. You’ve gotta love blogging!

  3. Thanks. I needed to be more confused than I already am. 😐

  4. Excellent reply to a question I have had for a long time. Don’t quite understand the mind change thing

    • Are you talking about the driver being on the wrong side but your mind corrects it? Same thing as looking in the mirror when you come your hair. It looks right to you, but your mind won’t put the comb in the right place.

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