Sunday, 22 March 2015

Who really invented the Automobile? A simple question with no easy answers.

History buffs love to debate, especially when it
comes to “who came first.” Which explorer
discovered the New World? Did Newton or Leibniz
develop calculus? Was Edison the lightbulb’s true
inventor? Topics like this stir the passions and
keep some arguments going for years. One issue
that comes up occasionally is the matter of who
built the first automobile. Like many other
questions, this one defies an easy answer.
Part of the problem is defining the term. By
today’s standards, an automobile is a mobile
machine driven by an internal combustion engine
and capable of transporting human beings. By this
definition, 19th century German engineer Karl
Benz deserves credit, thanks to the vehicle he
patented in 1886.
Prior to Benz’s creation, however, several other
inventors developed steam-powered autos. The
first of these was built in 1672 by Ferdinand
Verbiest, a Jesuit priest who fashioned a wheeled
machine as a gift for China’s Emperor. Though it
was too small for human transport, it’s the
earliest known example of a self-powered vehicle.
RELATED: See Photos of the 1886 Mercedes-Benz
Daimler Motorkutsche
Steam remained the fuel of choice for inventors
over the next 200 years. Frenchman Nicholas-
Joseph Cugnot built a steam-propelled tractor in
1771. British engineer William Murdoch developed
a steam carriage in 1784. Richard Trevithick is
credited with building the first practical steam-
powered car in 1801, using it to drive six friends
around the streets of Camboerne Hill on Christmas
For a time, it appeared that Great Britain would be
the epicenter of automotive technology. This
changed, however, with passage of the 1865
Locomotive Act. It banned the use of public
automobiles unless a man walked ahead of the
machine waving a red flag( sometimes I wonder what these peoples' brains were made of). English authorities did
not repeal this law until 1896.
The end of America’s Civil War hastened the
development of practical automobiles, as
technology took giant strides forward for the rest
of the 19th century. Canadian Henry Seth Taylor
built a steam-driven buggy in 1867, which he
demonstrated at a town fair in Stanstead, Québec.
Clergyman JW Carhart built a vehicle large
enough for human transport in 1871. American
George B Selden filed a patent for his own four
wheeled car in 1879.
RELATED: Subaru’s First Car Was This Quirky
The first auto race was held in July 1878. The
route covered the 201-mile distance from Green
Bay to Madison, Wisconsin. Two entrants
competed. The winner completed the route in 33
hours and 27 minutes with an average speed of 6
mph. He won $5,000 from the state legislature for
his efforts.
By the end of the 19th century, steam engines
were losing ground to petroleum-powered
vehicles. Battery-driven cars enjoyed a brief
period of popularity in the late 1800s and early
1900s. But gasoline’s advantages gave it the
decisive edge. To this day it remains the fuel of
choice for most automakers.
At the dawn of the 21st century, a bevy of new
technologies promises a golden age of safe, eco-
friendly driving. Electric cars in particular are
seeing a resurgence, as evidenced by the Chevy
Volt, Toyota Prius, and Tesla roadster. Hydrogen
fuel cells show potential as well, however, and
may eventually prove more practical. As for what
will power the automobiles of tomorrow, we will
just have to wait and see.


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