Ken Burns on PBS
Horatio's Drive
About The Film
Behind The Wheel
From Sea to Sea
The Car
For Educators
For Educators

Activity Six: If Horatio Drove Today

Mathematics, Social Studies

Students will analyze and calculate the historic and present day expenses associated with Horatio’s road trip.

Activity I
Have students brainstorm a list of expenses a car owner is likely to incur, e.g., the cost of a new or used automobile, gas, repairs, insurance, accessories, etc., citing an estimated dollar amount for each. Have them research (this can include surveying friends, parents, teachers) current average car ownership expenses. How much does a car owner spend each year on a vehicle? Who is most likely to own a car, given the annual expenses? Do these expenses increase each year? Are these expenses congruent with average wages?

Referring to Horatio’s Drive, ask students to consider the costs of a car in the early 20th century, when the automobile was slowly being introduced in America. Why were cars so expensive? Who could afford one? What might have been the average annual cost of owning an automobile back then, especially in light of the automobile’s technological novelty?

Divide students into small groups, each representing a decade of automobile development and usage over the last century (1900-2000). Have each group research and chart—within its designated timeframe— expenses for the categories noted above and others students have identified. Instruct groups to calculate rate changes from year-to-year, with a cumulative expense calculation over the decade, and a prediction of expense rates in the following decade (students looking at 1900-1910 would predict costs for 1910-1920). Invite each group to share its findings, noting its final 10-year prediction. As the groups present their findings in chronological order, compare one groups predicted data with the following group’s actual findings. What do these rates indicate about the cost of a car over time? What are the factors that influence changing costs? Has car ownership become more or less financially accessible over the years? Explain.

Have students calculate an estimated total cost of Horatio’s actual car-related expenses during his road trip, and then calculate the costs Horatio might have incurred had he taken his road trip in this part of the 21st century (based on their findings in the preceding step). Would it be more or less expensive for Horatio to travel now?

Activity II
Invite students to brainstorm the modern-day expenses (other than automobile-related) a traveler might incur on a road trip, for example lodging, food, souvenirs, postcards, etc. They can also reflect on a trip they have taken to come up with an estimated total cost of these expenses. As in Activity I, students can research the cost of these items over the last century or estimate/research the value of these good in the early 20th century.

Referring to Horatio’s Drive and related materials, have students list all of the travel-related goods and services Horatio used and identify actual costs and/or average expenses of these items during that time period. On first glance, how different are the prices compared to today’s? Was it cheaper to use these good and services back then? Are the present day values of expenses Horatio incurred reasonable for present day trips?

Instruct students to find the respective present day present day values of these items and calculate the percent increase for each. Are there any trends? Are there some items that stand out as having greater or lesser amounts of increase? Have students can discuss these questions and write-up their summary analysis of the data. Decide what should be best conversion factor(s) to adjust the costs of Horatio on his trip.

Extended Activities
Students can:
  • Using information found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Web site (, calculate percent differences of Consumer Price Index goods and services in the early 20th century and 2003, explaining changes over time and determining whether these items are more expensive or cheaper, relevant to the time and actual wages.
  • Create a budget for a real or imagined road trip.
  • Examine the past and current standard of living costs in each of the cities Horatio visited.
  • Chart the cost of gasoline during the last century, indicating the factors that influence price indexing.
  • Compare the cost of car travel with other forms of transportation.


    San Francisco, Evangeline Adams, “Some Facts About the Cost of Living in San Francisco”

    Chicago, Chicago Public Library

    New York, Cornell University
    Wage-earners' budgets; a study of standards and cost of living in New York ... More,
    Louise Bolard. H. Holt and Co., New York : 1907.

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    The activities in this lesson correlate to the following national standards from NCTM:

    Number and Operations
  • Understand and use ratios and proportions to represent quantitative relationships.

  • Represent, analyze, and generalize a variety of patterns with tables, graphs, words,
    and, when possible, symbolic rules
  • Model and solve contextualized problems using various representations, such as graphs, tables, and equations.

  • Solve simple problems involving rates and derived measurements for such attributes as velocity.

    Data Analysis and Probability
  • Formulate questions

  • Communicate mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others.
  • Analyze and evaluate the mathematical thinking and strategies of others.

  • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.

    About the Author
    Author Steve Crandall has taught secondary mathematics and science since 1979. An amateur entomologist and astronomer, he has presented lessons at state/national conferences for math, science, and middle school.