The automobile as we know it was
not invented in a single day by a single inventor. The history of the automobile
reflects an evolution that took place worldwide. It is estimated that over
100,000 patents created the modern automobile. However, we can point to
the many firsts that occurred along the way. Starting with the first theoretical
plans for a motor vehicle that had been drawn up by both Leonardo
da Vinci and Isaac Newton.
In 1769, the very first self-propelled
road vehicle was a military tractor invented by French engineer and mechanic,
Nicolas Joseph Cugnot (1725 - 1804). Cugnot used a steam
engine to power his vehicle, built under his instructions at the Paris
Arsenal by mechanic Brezin. It was used by the French Army to haul artillery
at a whopping speed of 2 1/2 mph on only three wheels. The vehicle had
to stop every ten to fifteen minutes to build up steam power. The steam
engine and boiler were separate from the rest of the vehicle and placed
in the front (see engraving above). The following year (1770), Cugnot built
a steam-powered tricycle that carried four passengers.
In 1771, Cugnot drove one of his
road vehicles into a stone wall, making Cugnot the first person to get
into a motor vehicle accident. This was the beginning of bad luck for the
inventor. After one of Cugnot's patrons died and the other was exiled,
the money for Cugnot's road vehicle experiments ended.
Steam engines powered cars by burning
fuel that heated water in a boiler, creating steam that expanded and pushed
pistons that turned the crankshaft, which then turned the wheels. During
the early history of self-propelled vehicles - both road and railroad
vehicles were being developed with steam engines. (Cugnot also designed
two steam locomotives with engines that never worked well.) Steam engines
added so much weight to a vehicle that they proved a poor design for road
vehicles; however, steam engines were very successfully used in locomotives.
Historians, who accept that early steam-powered road vehicles were automobiles,
feel that Nicolas Cugnot was the inventor of the first automobile.
Several Other Inventors Designed Steam-Powered Road Vehicles
Cugnots vehicle was improved by Frenchman,
Onesiphore Pecqueur, who also invented the first differential gear.
In 1789, the first U.S. patent for a
steam-powered land vehicle was granted to Oliver
In 1801, Richard
Trevithick built a road carriage powered by steam - the first in Great
In Britain, from 1820 to 1840, steam-powered
stagecoaches were in regular service. These were later banned from public
roads and Britain's railroad system developed as a result.
Steam-driven road tractors (built by
Charles Deitz) pulled passenger carriages around Paris and Bordeaux up
In the United States, numerous steam
coaches were built from 1860 to 1880. Inventors included: Harrison Dyer,
Joseph Dixon, Rufus Porter, and William T. James.
Amedee Bollee Sr. built advanced steam
cars from 1873 to 1883. The "La Mancelle" built in 1878, had a front-mounted
engine, shaft drive to the differential, chain drive to the rear wheels,
steering wheel on a vertical shaft and driver's seat behind the engine.
The boiler was carried behind the passenger compartment.
In 1871, Dr. J. W. Carhart, professor
of physics at Wisconsin State University, and the J. I. Case Company built
a working steam car that won a 200-mile race.
were not the only engines used in early automobiles. Vehicles with electrical
engines were also invented. Between 1832 and 1839 (the exact year is uncertain),
Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first electric carriage. Electric
cars used rechargeable batteries that powered a small electric motor. The
vehicles were heavy, slow, expensive, and needed to stop for recharging
frequently. Both steam and electric road vehicles were abandoned in favor
of gas-powered vehicles. Electricity found greater success in tramways
and streetcars, where a constant supply of electricity was possible.
History of Electric Vehicles
about the history of electrical vehicles from 1890 to the present.
However, around 1900, electric land
vehicles in America outsold all other types of cars. Then in the several
years following 1900, sales of electric vehicles took a nosedive as a new
type of vehicle came to dominate the consumer market.
page > The First Gas Powered Cars
all artwork mary bellis (original
photo source LOC)