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The "Invention" of the Automobile

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

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The "Invention" of the Automobile

Bill Crittenden
January 8, 2014


Where to begin?  Perhaps with some semantics.  Auto, meaning self, and mobile, meaning moving.  Self-propelled.  I've found from newspaper searches that the word "automobile" had been applied to naval torpedoes before it became applied to what we know today as the "automobile."

So what did we call those automobiles before they were called automobiles?  Steam wagons, motor cars, horseless carriages, motor wagons, locomobiles & elecromobiles, and famously on the Selden Patent, "Road Engine."

So, on to the history.  We've all heard that the automobile as we know it today was "invented" first by Karl Benz in 1886, but the story goes much farther back.

As I wrote last year in a comparison of vehicles a century apart, the automobile is really a combination of multiple technologies that are in constant states of advancement.  Indeed, the three-wheeled Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1886 looks very different from a Ford Mustang of 1986, a vehicle that although recognizable (four wheels!) but missing a lot of modern technology, is still at least drivable on today's roadways.  Not so the original Benz.

It had been a dream of millions for hundreds of years to create a mechanically-powered self-propelled vehicle.  Drawings of ideas date all the way back to Leonardo Da Vinci's 1478 drawings of a vehicle that appeared to be powered by clockwork springs.  That's the year 1478, not 1,478 drawings, and yes, that is before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

But Da Vinci's vehicle, while self-propelled, didn't seat a person.  No less a luminary in history than Sir Isaac Newton, who lived from 1642 to 1727, drew a design for a steam powered automobile that looked like an oversized piece of science lab equipment on wheels.  It was completely impractical, but the ideas were there.

Perhaps the world had first created the first real automobile-like machine back in 1672, when a Jesuit missionary built a little steam vehicle as a toy for a Chinese emperor.  It was too small to carry a person, but it could at least be noteworthy to radio control car fans!

Perhaps the first vehicle we can recognize as an automobile was the relatively cumbersome and limited steam trolley created all the way back in 1769, when Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered artillery tractor.  It had three wheels (one front and two rear), a steam boiler hanging ahead of the front wheel, and looked absolutely nothing like any automobile we recognize as such today.  But it could four persons, and could move at a speed of 2¼ miles an hour, but not for an entire hour with the rudimentary steam boiler.

As time progressed and technology improved, steam power was put on rails and developed in a much different direction than the individual motor car.  Based purely on semantics, one could have called a railway locomotive an automobile.  An excerpt of the Topics of the Times column of The New York Times on May 6, 1897 contained the following: "Automobile is a dreadful word, and the French ought to be ashamed of it, for to inconvenient length it adds an inadequacy of signification that amounts almost or quite to inaccuracy, and therefore it does not deserve a place in the most exact of modern languages.  However, the French, thanks to their magnificent roads, already have 'automobiles' as an every-day, practical means of transportation, while our 'horseless carriages' are little better than toys to excite curiosity.  Still, they ought to invent a better name.  A steamboat or a railway train is as 'automobile' as are the new road wagons."

But the automobile as we know the word to mean took a bit longer to develop.  Railway vehicles had the advantage of dedicated roads where the larger vehicles would not have to contend with pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, or other traffic.  The automobile would have to be lighter and smaller, and the steam propulsion technology of the early 1800's just wasn't light or small.

The first application of this technology to the open road was seen in the 1830's, when large steam-powered coaches carried passengers in England.  Lacking the scale to produce the world's first individual-sized automobile, they are the ancestors of the modern bus.  They plied the roads between towns until put out of business by tolls and the burgeoning railway networks of the time.

At the same time, but not for the same purposes, the advancement of the internal combustion engine was progressing, albeit a bit less robustly.

The earliest historical reference to an internal combustion engine can perhaps be found in Christiaan Huygens' water pump, where gunpowder was used to drive a piston all the way back in the 1600's.

Without an oil industry to provide cheap and available fuel, the internal combustion engine was little more than a science experiment until the mid-1800's.  After then, development came rapidly.  The first commercially available liquid-fueled internal combustion engine on the American market was invented by a man named George Brayton, whose "constant-pressure" engine was very different from the two- and four-stroke engines we see most commonly today.  That will become a sticking point in the "invention" of the automobile when it becomes big business later on.

That familiar four-stroke piston engine we know today is known as the Otto Cycle engine, whose development began in 1876 by Nikolaus Otto with the help of Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler (finally some familiar names, right?).

At this time, remember, there was no internet.  Newspapers weren't even as developed as they are today, and there were a lot of people replicating each others' work independently without each others' knowledge.  It is in this environment that George B. Selden attached a Brayton Cycle gasoline engine to a wagon and drove it out of his garage.  He filed for a patent on May 8, 1879, almost seven years before Karl Benz.  This patent was finally published on November 5, 1895, and by published I mean as a patent, not as headline news, and thus wasn't really forgotten so much as never heard about in the first place.  That would change in the next century.

To illustrate just how far "in the dark" we were about each others' inventions, I came across this excerpt from The New York Times' Topics of the Times from January 27, 1900:

That ingenious resident of Long Island to whom credit was given yesterday for having constructed in 1866 "the first automobile that was successfully run as a public conveyance" will apparently have to be content with whatever fame there is in recognition as not the first to demonstrate the practicability of this kind of vehicle, but the first to do it in America. A Brooklyn reader of The Times has sent us a page from The Mechanics' Magazine and Register of Inventions, published at 35 Wall Street in 1834, and containing an illustrated description of a steam omnibus which for some time before had been conveying passengers between Finsbury Square and Pentonville, London. The picture shows a far from ill-looking covered conveyance, with the machinery resting on the rear wheels, well out of the way, and the accompanying text declares that the conveyance had not only done its work safely, but had been a considerable source of profit to its inventor. Painted on the side of this—perhaps—oldest of automobiles was the curious name "Autopsy." That was a title hardly likely to inspire possible passengers with cheerful thoughts, and why it was chosen is certainly a mystery. But "autopsy" is a queer word, anyhow, and rarely, indeed, finds itself employed in service for which its etymology fits it. A steam carriage comes about as near to being an "autopsy" as does the dismemberment of a dead body.


The above appears to reference one of Walter Hancock's steam powered buses, but that was apparently not popular knowledge at the time.  It still isn't today, but it's just a Google search away on any smartphone.  In the late 1800's, that may have taken hours to research in a very well stocked library.  Not just any middle-of-the-cornfields Nebraska town library would have that kind of depth.  Now any child of the corn with an iPad can wade through the depths of details undreamt of in 1900, all at their fingertips.  It's important to remember in all of this that easily available information everywhere has only recently become the case. (I should know, most of this article was fact-checked on Wikipedia)

So we're finally taken to 1886, and Karl Benz, and the "motorwagen" that combined several known technologies, with some improvements, into a workable vehicle that was practical enough to launch one of the world's largest industries.  First to the finish line, according to most peoples' definition of where that finish line lay, but certainly not the first to come up with the individual technologies or even the idea, having been preceded by several generations of vehicles before his.

That industry hit high gear when Henry Ford created the Model T and the efficient factory in which millions of them could be cranked out rapidly and cheaply.  But here is where George Selden reenters the picture.

What George Selden really did invent was the patent troll.  Create something rudimentary in obscurity, quietly file a patent, and hit everyone for royalties when someone else reinvents it and makes a business out of it.  Selden never made a car beyond his prototype, but had a credible patent and emerged to begin collecting royalties from auto manufacturers and filing lawsuits against those who didn't pay.  The bullseye was on Henry Ford's back, and Ford eventually prevailed in court on the principle that the patent did cover an automobile made with a Brayton Cycle engine...but Ford and the rest of the internal combustion segment of the industry (steam and electricity were still viable options in those early days) had moved on to the Otto Cycle engine.

So perhaps the Benz Patent-Motorwagen was the first practical internal combustion powered vehicle for an individual, but it was far from the first automobile in the most pure sense of the word.  History beyond the shorthand, the tendency to want to name one inventor for quiz-show level simplicity, recognizes Cugnot, Selden, Daimler, Otto, Trevithick, De Dion & Bouton, Hancock, and many others as major inventors in the history of the first automobiles.

The history of the automobile really does carry all the way back to an era that predates the American Declaration of Independence (barely) and if so much history of the failures and tries that preceded Cugnot hadn't been lost to time or obscurity, perhaps a long way even further back.

As a side note, as I was finishing this article I spoke to someone whose car almost didn't start in the sub-zero temperatures of this cold northern Illinois night.  He said he was driving his wife's car, and "old Buick."  Wondering why anyone would take an older car out on a night like this, I asked how old, and he said 2005.  That hardly seems old in Buick's 110+ year history, but we all have different ideas of what an old car is.  Mine may have been altered by the fact that I still had Da Vinci and Newton on my screen.



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