History of the Automobile
Contrary to popular consensus, the history of the automobile began around 1769, with the creation of steam-engine wheeled vehicles that were responsible for transporting humans to their desired destination. However, the first fuel-powered vehicles appeared during 1806, when the internal combustion engine was designed. In 1885, the modern gasoline or petrol-fueled internal combustion engine emerged on the market. Electric-powered cars briefly appeared at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, but disappeared at the turn of the Twenty-First Century. The earliest stages of the automobile can be divided into numerous eras, according to the dominant propulsion models. Its latter developments emerged based on evolving consumer trends, and popular styling, size, and utility preferences.
Eras of Automobile Invention
17th and 18th Centuries
During the 17th century, Ferdinand Verbiest built the first vehicle that was powered by steam as a gift for the Chinese Emperor. This prototype was too small to carry a driver, and it was the first vehicle powered by steam used simply for entertainment.
During the 18th century, previous vehicles powered by steam transported people and cargo. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot developed the first steam-driven artillery tractor during the late 1700s. As with previous models, his invention proved unsuitable for human transport. Further innovations from William Murdoch and Richard Trevithick led to development of a full-sized vehicle. In fact, Trevithick’s car model was the first to operate on the road in Camborne.
Over the next decades, innovators added hand brakes, variable transmissions, and improved steering. In addition, the beginning of mass transit developed from these car models. Legislators in the United Kingdom passed laws that required a by passer to wave a red flag as self-propelled vehicles traversed public roads. This halted automobile development in the United Kingdom until the end of the Nineteenth Century. In the United States, Oliver Evans was granted the first automobile patent in 1789.
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- The History of Cars and Engines: An extended summary of automobile history, including early steam-powered and electric car prototypes.
The emergence of the Nineteenth Century led to the development of the first car powered by oil-fire. It was created by Professor Josef Bozek at Prague Polytechnic University. A prominent builder and operator of London-based steam buses built the first four-seat vehicle in 1838. However, the first identifiable automobile was produced by French automaker, Amedee Bollee in 1873. It was the first self-propelled vehicle that could transport groups of people at a time. Nikolaus Otto created the first internal combustion engine that ran off gasoline. Rudolf Diesel contributed to the invention of the first gasoline diesel engine. Anyos Jedlik invented the electric motor that powered the first electric car prototype.
In 1871, Dr. J.W. Carhart developed the first steam powered carriage. His invention caused the State of Washington to sponsor a challenge that led to the development of a carriage that did not require the use of horses or other farmstead animals for propulsion. The challenge’s stipulations required that the vehicle travel over a two hundred mile course at a sustained speed of five miles per hour. Seven innovators participated, which led to the first automobile race in the Untied States; however, only two of these models could actively compete. Both competitors came from Green Bay and Oshkosh. The Oshkosh finished the race in thirty three hours and twenty seven minutes. The Green Bay competitor started off faster, but broke down before crossing the finish line. The Oshkosh innovator was awarded half the proposed prize money.
Automobile innovators of steam-powered vehicles continued to develop improved models into the early Twentieth Century. However, these began to phase out with the introduction of petrol-based engines. Steam-powered vehicles never resurfaced again. During the 1950s, manufacturers saw an interest in steam-powered cars that retrieved its power from nuclear reactors. This idea eventually fizzled after discovering the dangers of nuclear exposure to people. Twenty-First Century engineers have reconsidered the use of steam-powered engines to conserve energy sources.
- The Automobile and the Environment in American History: A highly detailed profile of the internal combustion engine's introduction into the automobile market.
- Transportation Technology Videos: A video series providing an overview of transportation technology beginning with the 17th century.
The Veteran Era
The general population perceived the veteran car era as more of a novelty than utilitarian. Drivers faced frequent mechanical breakdowns, fuel shortages, and unsuitable roads for traveling. Rapid innovation meant that a new car was nearly worthless within a few months of its release. The automobile received the notoriety it deserved when Bertha Benz traveled over fifty miles to advertise the cars that Karl Benz manufactured. Shortly thereafter, Horatio Nelson Jackson successfully drove across the United States in 1903. Rambler was the first to provide a spare tire to motorists, instead of tire repair kits.
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- Benz Patent Motor Car No. 1: 1886: The Birth of the Automobile (PDF): A document detailing the vehicle patented by Karl Benz. His wife traveled over fifty miles to advertise this automobile.
The Edwardian Era
Automobiles gained recognition between 1905 and the First World War, because of the dominant use of brass in manufacturing. All of the previous experimental and alternate car models became marginalized over this distinct fifteen year period. Once Panhard et Levassor's licensed the Systeme Panhard, which led to the standard vehicles we use today. The Systeme Panhard used rear-wheel drive with an adjustable gear transmission. Traditional coach-style vehicles were abandoned, and other touring bodies were introduced in favor of the buckboard runabouts.
- Brass Era Cars: The Blackhawk Museum presents a photo gallery of acclaimed brass era cars.
- The Edwardian Era: A short description of the Edwardian era, and the vintage cars that everyone drove.
The Vintage Era
The vintage era of automobile history lasted from the end of the First World War until the start of the Great Depression. Front-engined cars became the dominant models, with enclosed bodies and standardized controls. Over ninety percent of all cars sold were out in the open in 1919. The further development of internal combustion engines led to the development of multi-valve and overhead camshafts. In addition, Malcolm Loughead invented hydraulic brakes that were implemented in Duesenberg's Model-A in 1921. Hermann Rieseler invented the first two-speed automatic transmission. Early developments of tempered glass occurred in France. The introduction of ponton design cars began without fully designed fenders and running boards.
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The Pre-WWII Era
The Classic era occurred at the start of the Great Depression in 1930 and lasted up until the end of the Second World War. Integrated fenders and fully enclosed bodies dominated sales. The sedan car model incorporated a trunk and boot at the back for storage. All open-top vehicles began to phase out at the end of the Classic era with the introduction of running boards, wings, and headlights. Most the mechanical technology used in modern vehicles had been invented by the 1930s. In addition, Andre Citroen launched the Traction Avant in 1934. Amedee Bolle invented the use of independent suspension in 1873. A decline in automobile manufacturers occurred as a result of the Great Depression.
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The Post-War Era
The advent of the Second World War shifted the automobile industry towards a ponton design. The introduction of high-compression V8 engines emerged as a result of military interest in automobile production. General Motors, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac emerged at the top of automobile manufacturers. High-speed engines arose to popularity throughout the 1950s, whereby designs became more integrated and cosmetically appeasing to the eye. The Volkswagen Beetle shook the small-car market in the United States after surviving a tumultuous era in Germany during the Second World War. Cadillac introduced more luxurious features. In addition, widespread international competition spurred worrisome feelings from Detroit manufacturers in the 1960s. The acquisition of corporate companies in Italy occurred as Maserati, Ferrari, and Lancia found new owners.
In the United States, automobile marketers catered toward pony cars and muscle cars. The Ford Mustang made its first appearance in 1964. Chevrolet released the Camaro in response to Ford's introduction of the Mustang. The 1973 oil crisis and auto emission control regulations led to the rapid importation of Japanese and European imports, such as BMW, Toyota, and Nissan. An upswing in smaller sized cars and grand tour class cars occurred at the end of the 1970s. Independent suspensions and fuel injectors became the biggest mechanical developments of the Post-War Era.
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The Modern Era
The modern era paved the way towards increasing standardization, platform sharing, and computer designs. The widespread use of front-wheel and all-wheel drive occurred in the last twenty-five years. In addition, the diesel engine and fuel injectors dominated the automobile market. All modern passenger cars have front-wheel drive. The hatchback, sedan, and sport utility vehicle dominate today's market. In the United States, pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) has the changed the face of the automobile industry. The modern era has also produced increasing fuel efficiency and engine output. The introduction of computer parts made automobiles more powerful than in past eras. International automobile manufacturing has opened the doors to imports more so than in past eras.
- Modern Automobile History: A web page dedicated to the automobile development of the last century.
- How Computers work in Automobiles: A comprehensive article detailing how computers have contributed to enhanced developments in modern vehicles.
- ‘Father of the automobile’ (PDF): An extensive document detailing the earliest automotive innovations.
- Automobile History: A detailed time line of automobile developments throughout the years.
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