The History of Automobiles – Driving through Time

Exactly when and where the history of the automobile - surely one of the most important machines in modern society - began is up for debate as it depends on what definition of an automobile is applied to the question.

The word itself is derived from the Greek word 'autos' meaning 'self' and the Latin word 'mobilis' which translates as 'moving'. This term was coined as far back as the 14th Century by an Italian engineer called Martini, who drew up plans for a crankshaft driven four wheeled vehicle, but unfortunately never got around to building one.

Wind Power

Martini was not the only one interested in such an idea. The 1300’s saw many Italian inventors, including Vaturio, wrestling with the problem. The first inventor was probably Guido da Vigevano, who drew up amazing plans for a wind powered vehicle as far back as 1335.

Motivated by the idea of building military vehicles to help in the crusades in the holy land which were going increasingly badly for the Knights of Europe, Vigevano’s ‘wind wagon’ held a windmill on the back of a strong wooden carriage. Using information from his original plans, modern engineers have estimated that this could have raced along at speeds of up to 30mph into the wind.

The most famous inventor of all, Leonardo da Vinci, would also later consider automobiles. He designed a tricycle which was clockwork driven, and even boasted differential gearing to aid the rear wheels.

All Steamed Up

But such ideas were not taken up, and it would have to wait until much later in 1769 France, when Nicolas Joseph Cugnot designed a steam powered three wheeler that was intended to pull artillery. Though moving at 2mph and having to stop every 15-20 minutes for a rest, it may not have impressed the generals that much.

Undeterred, Cugnot built another vehicle the next year which carried four passengers, but this was involved in the first known road accident, when a wall got in the way.

Despite this bad luck, the steam idea had its supporters in England, the United States, as well as in France.

The year 1789 saw an American, Oliver Evans, being given a patent for what he called a “self-propelled carriage”. Then, in the early to mid 1800’s, steam powered stagecoaches were a popular service in Britain.

The technology had increased a lot, the vehicles were no longer as heavy and clumsy as they previously were, but the railway companies (at this time Britain led the world in steam train design and build) were not happy with their road rivals, and wanted to get rid of them.

The government did not help either, with bad legislation, and the steam carriages were unable to fight the ban effectively because of the ferocious competition from the railways which was tempting away their passengers.

Though steam as a power source for smaller personal vehicles would survive in common use until the beginning of the twentieth century in both North America and Europe, it was apparent to some that the future development of the technology would be limited and difficult, and the future of the automobile would lay elsewhere.

Electric Trickery

Many people think that electric cars are a new idea, but not so. The spark was born in the 1830’s, either in Scotland, by Robert Anderson, or in Holland by a Groningen professor and ex-pharmacist called Sibrandus Stratingh, who also designed electric boats.

More practical automobiles would arrive shortly after these earliest of prototypes, as the usefulness and power of batteries gradually improved over the next fifty years.

By the 1880’s automobiles were widespread and looked to have a bright future. This increased in likelihood even more, when in 1899 a Belgian racing car named `La Jamais Contente’ that was powered by electricity, set a new land speed world record at 68mph.

Americans were initially reluctant to welcome the electric car (no change there, then) with most of the early design work done in England and France, but this was to change as America embraced them completely at the turn of the century.

In 1897 for example, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia would build a large number of electric taxis for operation in New York City. Names like Ryker, Morrison and Woods would be the pioneers on this side of the Atlantic, encouraging the public to buy their horseless carriages with some technical innovation and good publicity.

Wood’s car, called the Phaeton, could travel for just under 20 miles on a single charge, at speeds of up to 14mph, and cost $2000 to purchase. Some could be bought for around half that, but many electric automobiles were in truth luxurious affairs for the ‘better off’ customer.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, they were more popular than steam or the new pretender, gasoline powered vehicles.

Electricity was cleaner and quieter than the shaking gasoline stinkers, and they had no gears, which was just so much effort to contend with. Steam cars also had no gears, but their range (before they needed to be refilled with water) was considerably less than an electric car fully charged up.

So for much of this early period, it really seemed as if the electric car had it all sewn up.

However, this was not to be.

Oily and Messy, Awkward and Loud, but Loved

As so often is the case, a true romance has to endure a stormy beginning and America’s love affair with the internal combustion engine is certainly no exception.

It all started in Germany in 1885, well not really. It actually started in 1680 when Dutchman Christian Huygens planned and intended to build (but luckily for him and those close to him, never did) an internal combustion engine that was to draw its power from gunpowder.

From these potentially explosive beginnings, the internal combustion idea was born.

It would stutter along for near two hundred years before it really got going, as many different inventors worked hard through the 19th century to get the mechanics (and the fuel) right.

Rivaz tried a hydrogen/oxygen mix (rocket fuel) in Switzerland, and designed a car to use it with, but the design was problematic. Brown (England) and Lenoir (Belgium) worked with coal gas, and Lenoir later switched to trying petroleum (gasoline), to power his three wheeled horse carriage, on an impressive journey of many miles.

Marcus, in Austria, and de Rochas in France contributed ideas, and the American inventor Brayton later designed a kerosene powered engine that was unsuccessful.

Deutschland Uber Alles

It was in Germany where the final breakthrough would be made. First came Niklaus Otto, who, helped by an engineer called Langen, improved on the faults of Lenoir’s and de Rochas’ machines. Then, in 1876 Otto invented and patented the “Otto Cycle Engine”, the first practical long working four-stroke internal combustion engine, and fitted it to a motorcycle.

Or did he build that motorcycle?

A certain engineer by the name of Gottfried Daimler was working for Otto’s company as a technical director at the time, and some claim the motorcycle was his construction.

Whatever the truth of that, the two ‘fell out’ a few years later and Daimler, a former gunsmith, formed his own company with another engineer called Wilhelm Maybach.

They vastly improved the design of engines, achieving models that worked at 900 rpm (revolutions per minute) as opposed to 130 rpm which was the best that had yet been reached by Otto. By 1885 their engine was light weight and high speed, with a very effective carburetor that vaporized the gasoline and mixed it with air. First, they also tested it on motorcycles, then in 1889 (a year before the Daimler Motor Company was founded) they fixed it into a four wheeled carriage and drove it around at 11 mph. The engine worked well and the world had its first four wheeled automobile.

Further proof that Daimler had taken over from Otto at setting the best standards of mechanics, was the 1894 French road race between the cities of Paris and Rouen, where only 15 of the 102 starters got to the finish, and all 15 were using Daimler engines.

Herr Daimler and Herr Benz

It is another German inventor and mechanical engineer, by the name of Karl (Carl) Benz that is held in equal regard with Gottfried Daimler in terms of pre-eminence among the numerous fathers of the modern automobile. And because their two companies were later to merge as Daimler-Benz, (now more widely known as Mercedes Benz) many think that the two have always been together in the field of car and engine design. But this is not true at all - in point of fact - the two men never even met.

Karl Benz invented and patented the world’s first true motor car, a three wheeler whose engineering and mechanics was constructed purely to house an internal combustion engine (of his own design).

His latest engine and its chassis were fully integrated and meant for each other from the very start, with neither one being appropriated from elsewhere. On the historic day of January 29 1886, when Benz registered patent DRP 37435, the automobile was officially born.

But it was a difficult birth.

Just Borrowing the Car, Darling

When it comes to matters of birth though, women must be consulted, and Karl’s loyal wife Bertha was of paramount importance in the new mechanical child’s growth in the outside world. She had already been a tower of strength to keep Karl on the path to his dreams when doubts struck at the brilliant designer who was less sure of himself in business terms.

Bertha had already saved his workshop, with money from her parents, and now she would save the first car from being a stillbirth.

It was not selling, many potential customers still unconvinced of the idea of travel that was reliant on this strange and unsettling new technology. So one summer morning in 1888 when Karl was absent she gathered up their two sons and calmly drove away!

At the end of the day, she had driven a distance of around 65 miles from their home in Mannheim to the town of Pforzheim near Stuttgart, Germany.

The triumphant telegram to let Karl know of his family’s journey signaled not only her elation at the success of the adventure, but also the beginning of a public relations spectacular.

Not only had such a distance been travelled without incident, but it had been travelled by a woman!

Although claims of assistance along the way were quickly voiced by some naysayers, the car business of Benz & Cie was never doubted again. This car, with its rear wheels powered by a belt and pulley system that boasted a transmission and a water cooled gasoline fuelled internal combustion engine, was now assured of success. And by 1900, they were the world’s largest car company.

Driving On

The automobile was now here to stay, that much was obvious. The standard for the modern car was to be altered yet again by Frenchmen, Panhard and Levassor, who had the idea of the engine being placed in the front of the vehicle. But, gasoline still had to fend off the competition from both electric and steam powered cars before it could rule the roads.

And it would.

In the United States, in the very early days of the 20th century, gasoline cars were only present in half the numbers that electric automobiles were, and also outnumbered by steam powered vehicles.

But the times were changing, and there are diverse reasons for this. Some reasons included the new and plentiful finds of oil, better roads between major cities and towns which led to more requirements for longer range cars, and the elimination of the physically demanding hand cranks which were necessary to start the engine before Charles Kettering invented the electrical ignition.

But the main ‘nail in the coffin’ for the electric option, was simply the economic argument. With internal combustion engine automobiles being approximately 1/3 the price of their electric rivals, they proved to be more useful as well.

This was brought into close focus by Henry Ford. In 1913, he revolutionized the automobile manufacturing industry with his rapid assembly line production, that made use of conveyor belts. He had also introduced the famous Model T to a grateful world in 1908, this marvel quickly becoming established as the first car for the common man. Not only cheaper to make (and therefore to buy), but also highly adaptable and easy to maintain, the Model T was unstoppable. Fifteen million cars would roll out of the Ford factories by 1927.

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

So many inventors, designers and engineers, have been involved in our love affair with the automobile, that it is perhaps surprising that essentially cars work the same way as those of Daimler and Benz.

Naturally, since this early history, automobiles have undergone many evolutionary changes to their designs that would probably make the eyes bulge of the early heroes who broke new ground. Ideas and styles have come and gone, the gas guzzlers and muscle machines of 1950’s America being some of the most distinctive routes, as Europe and Japan chose a more conservative approach in the main. Now businesses have sprung into place on selling your car and dealerships flourished.

Now, global warming and pollution is a major concern, for which the internal combustion engine has been labelled a guilty party, and manufacturers are competing in this regard as much as in looks or speed. Electric cars are perhaps on the verge of a spectacular comeback, but gasoline, the peoples’ favorite, is still holding out as the first choice at this stage in the ongoing history of the automobile.

About The Author

Ray T. Lewis lives just outside of Dallas, Texas with his wife and three children. He has two dogs, a chihuahua and a puggle, both of whom love their Daddy very much. He reads extensively, and he's worked as an editor and writer for for a little over two years. His goal with that site is to help real people get real answers to real questions. The best thing about the Internet is the speed with which you can find answers to questions like how to sell your car?, or how much is my car worth?, to what is an andriod phone?, and everything in between. Visitors to can expect to find extensive, detailed answers to reader-submitted questions.

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