From Steam Power to Horsepower: A History of the Automobile

Believe it or not, the design for motor-powered vehicle appeared as early as the 16th century, in the notebooks and papers of Leonardo da Vinci and then later Sir Isaac Newton. A French engineer named Nicolas Joseph Cugnot furthered the history of the automobile when he developed a steam engine vehicle in the 1770s. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the electric car made its debut, before giving way to the more popular gas-powered vehicles that, over 100 years later, we cruise around in today.

“Ancient” History: Cugnot and the Steam-Powered Car

Considering how far cars have come in modern history, with features like satellite radio and heated seats, Cugnot’s steam-powered inventions are downright primitive. But, some historians conclude, Cugnot in the early 1770s invented the very first automobile. His “automobile,” while not contributing much in the way of design genius for cars (steam engines were far too heavy to be considered practical in passenger vehicles), still represented a totally different, totally machine-propelled form of transportation that would excite an innately human desire to get where we’re going with all due speed. Fun fact: Cugnot also managed to drive his vehicle into a stone wall, making 1771 renowned as the year of the infamous “First Car Accident.”

Robert Anderson and the Electric Car

The Chevy Volt this was not. Instead, Anderson’s 1830s model was powered by a heavy battery that needed to be recharged often, making the concept of long car trips unbearably slow (and expensive). Yet as the century went on, electric cars did pick up in momentum and popularity, with Camille Jenatzy of Belgium breaking the 100 km/h speed barrier in 1899.

The Internal Combustion Engine or Why We Love Gasoline

In the simplest terms, an internal combustion engine works when a fuel (commonly a fossil fuel) combusts (or ignites) in a chamber where an oxidizer (such as air) is present. A high-pressure, high temperature gas is produced and applies direct force to the engine, which is the transformation of chemical energy into mechanical energy. This is the process by which modern-day cars propel us toward Taco Bell at 1 a.m.

It was around the same time in the late 1800s that inventors in Europe and the U.S. were developing internal combustion engines and fitting them inside carriage vehicles. The first production of automobiles occurred in 1888 in Germany by Karl Benz, whose wife, Bertha, had made an inaugural trip between Mannheim and Pforzheim and back. Shortly after, there was no containing the boom of automobile technology that was being produced. Steam and electric engines still tried to compete, but petrol-fueled cars won by the 1910s.

One important development in car technology was the invention of a braking system. Four-wheel brakes come to us through the Arrol-Johnston Company of Scotland in 1909. The electric ignition system was developed by Robert Bosch, who enhanced an unpatented magneto ignition device and solved one of the greatest initial vehicle problems. Transmissions and throttle controls were other features that made their way into early automobiles.

How Far Have We Come Since?

It would be an understatement to say that much has changed since those early models. In the period following World War I until the Great Depression, we saw the rise of front-engine cars and closed auto bodies. It was also near the end of this era that tempered glass was invented. Car radio was, In turn, invented in 1929 by the American Paul Galvin, though radios had to be purchased separately. Lots of mechanical technology was reinvented or reintroduced, like front wheel drive, but new technologies, a la air conditioning, were introduced into vehicles (the first air conditioning system appeared in a 1940 Packard). Turn signals were presented in 1938 by Buick, while electric car windows made their entrance in 1948.

Following World War II, cars really began to take shape, with faster speeds, more artistic designs and real luxury vehicles entering the scene (such as the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham). Power steering became widely available in 1951 thanks to Francis Davis, who quit his job at Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company and invented a hydraulic power steering system. Finally, in 1968 Daniel Aaron Wisner invented cruise control.

Today, add-ons (that we might think of as essential) are almost too numerous to mention. From back-up cameras in big trucks to touch screens on the dash, it’s incredible to think how far we’ve come with automobile technology – and how far we’ve yet to really go.

This article was written by Sarah Lynne Travers, who enjoys working on cars from a different era, but also enjoys taking time to visit websites that supply all her car needs.

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