To the owner of an Automobile 70 years ago, air conditioning, power steering and a stereo would probably seem fit only for the most expensive of limousines. Today, we’re apt to find them in many ordinary family cars. If we insist on comfort as much as speed and reliability in the automobiles we drive, it’s not without good reason: in the age of the Automobile, an American can spend up to 10 or 15 percent of his waking hours in the well-appointed confines of his home away from home, the car.
Without doubt, the Automobile ranks among the two or three most important inventions of our age. The car has determined the shape of our cities and the routine of our lives, made almost every inch of our nation easily accessible to everybody, ribboned our country with highways, cluttered the landscape with interchanges, gas stations, parking lots, drive-ins, and auto junkyards, and covered over 50,000 square miles of green with asphalt and concrete Considering that there is now one automobile in this country for every two persons (compared to, say, China, with over 14,500 persons per car), it’s certainly easy to agree with a writer who described the American as a “creature on four wheels.”
The technological revolution that has produced our mobile, car oriented society has taken place almost entirely in the last seventy or eighty years. But the idea of a self-propelled vehicle, with more modest accoutrements, indeed-had been on man’s mind for centuries before the first automobile cranked into gear. As long ago as the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon predicted the use of vehicles propelled by combustion, and in 1472, a Frenchman named Robert Valturio described a vehicle combining wind power and a cogwheel system for propulsion.
If, in 1600, you happened to be walking along a Dutch canal, you might have been surprised to see a two-masted ship bearing down on you. Not in the canal-on the road. There was one such ship that was said to have reached a speed of twenty miles per hour while carrying twenty-eight fear-stricken passengers. In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci had envisioned some sort of self-propelled vehicle; and some Dutchman, quite naturally, had modeled such a vehicle after a sailing vessel.
About 1700, a Swiss inventor mounted a windmill on a wagon. It was hoped that as the windmill wound up a huge spring, the vehicle would lope along under its own power.
In the early eighteenth century, another Frenchman designed a machine run by a series of steel springs, similar to a clock movement, but the French Academy had the foresight to declare that a horseless vehicle “would never be able to travel the roads of any city.”
No single man can be termed the inventor of the automobile.
Rather, advances on motor cars were made by many men working in various countries around the same time. But credit for the first mechanically propelled vehicle is generally given to the French engineer Nicholas Cugnot, who in 1769 built a three-wheeled steam-propelled tractor to transport military cannons. Cugnot’s machine could travel at speeds of up to two-and-a-half miles per hour, but had to stop every hundred feet or so to make steam.
Through much of the eighteenth century, steam-driven passenger vehicles-both with and without tracks-were in regular operation in England. The early steam engine, however, was found to be impractical on ordinary roads, for it required great engineering skills on the part of the driver. Numerous fatal accidents stiffened resistance to the new machines, and beginning in 1830, Parliament passed a number of laws greatly restricting their use. One such regulation, called the Re( Flag Law, stipulated that horseless cars must be preceded by a person on foot with a red flag in hand, or a red lantern at night, to warn of the car’s approach. Another law limited the speed of horseless vehicles to a blinding four miles per hour. The limit was not raised until 1896, when English motor club members celebrated with an “emancipation run” from London to Brighton, initiating what was to become an annual event.
These early restrictions naturally limited interest in automotive research in England. Other sources of power were investigated elsewhere. Over the latter years of the nineteenth century, various electric cars were introduced with some frequency, but these never quite caught on with the public because they had to be recharged regularly. Most work on the internal-combustion engine was performed on the continent, especially in France and Germany. The internal-combustion engine, like the auto itself, had no single inventor. But in 1885, Gottlieb Daimler of Germany became the first to patent a high-speed four-stroke engine.
Around the same time, Karl Benz, another German, was building an internal combustion tricycle that could reach a speed of ten miles per hour. The general public remained largely unimpressed. A German newspaper, reporting on Benz’s work, asked the question: “Who is interested in such a contrivance so long as there are horses on sale?”
Daimler and Benz worked independently for years, but later joined to form what is now the Mercedes-Benz Company-the name Mercedes having been borrowed from the daughter of a Daimler associate.
The first practical gasoline powered car with a modern type chassis and gears was the work of a Frenchman named Krebs, who designed the Panhard in 1894. In the early years of the industry, France led the world in automobile production. The still-flourishing Renault Company was founded before 1900. But around the turn of the century, Americans began to take the lead in automotive innovation.
The first successful internal combustion car in the United States was the work of the Duryea brothers, Charles and J. Frank, bike manufacturers from Springfield, Massachusetts. The Duryeas had read of Karl Benz’s work in Germany, and built their first car in 1893. Two years later, the brothers formed the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, the first automobile manufacturing firm in the nation. They later went on to win one of the most important races in automobile history.
Racing and sport motoring were then considered the primary uses of the automobile. Few people could see the future of the car as a common means of practical transportation. The first Automobile race ever held was won by a car that was powered by a steam engine. On June 22, 1894, Paris was bubbling with excitement as twenty horseless carriages lined up for the 80 mile race from Paris to Rouen and back again to the big town.
Could these newfangled things run at all? And if they did, would they prove as fleet and as durable as a few changes of horses?
Less than five hours later, a De Dion Bouton lumbered down the boulevards of gay Paree. The steamer had covered the distance at the daredevil rate of seventeen miles per hour.
The first auto race in America was held on Thanksgiving Day, 1895, over a snowy fifty-five mile course stretching from Chicago to Waukegan, Illinois. Sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald, the event included about eighty entries. But only six vehicles managed to leave the starting line. Only two finished-the victorious Duryea, and a rebuilt electric Benz that had to be pushed over a considerable part of the route. The victory of the gasoline powered Duryea did much to establish the internal-combustion vehicle as the car of the future.
At the time, American cities were certainly in desperate need of horseless carriages, and horseless streets. Around the turn of the century, New York City’s equine helpmates were depositing some 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine on the streets each day!
American engineers and inventors rose to meet the challenge with great advances in automotive technology in the later years of the nineteenth century; and in 1899, over 2,500 cars were produced by thirty different American companies. By 1904, there were over 54,500 cars on the roads here. But even then, poor roads and high costs made the Automobile chiefly a sporting vehicle. It remained for American industrial genius to bring the car within reach of the average citizen.