The very first self-powered road vehicles were powered by steam engines, and by that definition, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot of France built the first automobile in 1769 - recognized by the British Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Club de France as being the first. So why do so many history books say that the automobile was invented by either Gottlieb Daimler or Karl Benz? It is because both Daimler and Benz invented highly successful and practical gasoline-powered vehicles that ushered in the age of modern automobiles. Daimler and Benz invented cars that looked and worked like the cars we use today. However, it is unfair to say that either man invented "the" automobile.
Internal Combustion Engine: The Heart of the Automobile
An internal combustion engine is an engine that uses the explosive combustion of fuel to push a piston within a cylinder - the piston's movement turns a crankshaft that then turns the car wheels via a chain or a drive shaft. The different types of fuel commonly used for car combustion engines are gasoline (or petrol), diesel, and kerosene.
A brief outline of the history of the internal combustion engine includes the following highlights:
- 1680 - Dutch physicist, Christian Huygens designed (but never built) an internal combustion engine that was to be fueled with gunpowder.
- 1807 - Francois Isaac de Rivaz of Switzerland invented an internal combustion engine that used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. Rivaz designed a car for his engine - the first internal combustion powered automobile. However, his was a very unsuccessful design.
- 1824 - English engineer, Samuel Brown adapted an old Newcomen steam engine to burn gas, and he used it to briefly power a vehicle up Shooter's Hill in London.
- 1858 - Belgian-born engineer, Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir invented and patented (1860) a double-acting, electric spark-ignition internal combustion engine fueled by coal gas. In 1863, Lenoir attached an improved engine (using petroleum and a primitive carburetor) to a three-wheeled wagon that managed to complete a historic fifty-mile road trip.
- 1862 - Alphonse Beau de Rochas, a French civil engineer, patented but did not build a four-stroke engine (French patent #52,593, January 16, 1862).
- 1864 - Austrian engineer, Siegfried Marcus, built a one-cylinder engine with a crude carburetor and attached his engine to a cart for a rocky 500-foot drive. Several years later, Marcus designed a vehicle that briefly ran at 10 mph, which a few historians have considered as the forerunner of the modern automobile by being the world's first gasoline-powered vehicle (however, read conflicting notes below).
- 1873 - George Brayton, an American engineer, developed an unsuccessful two-stroke kerosene engine (it used two external pumping cylinders). However, it was considered the first safe and practical oil engine.
- 1866 - German engineers, Eugen Langen, and Nicolaus August Otto improved on Lenoir's and de Rochas' designs and invented a more efficient gas engine.
- 1876 - Nicolaus August Otto invented and later patented a successful four-stroke engine, known as the "Otto cycle".
- 1876 - The first successful two-stroke engine was invented by Sir Dougald Clerk.
- 1883 - French engineer, Edouard Delamare-Debouteville, built a single-cylinder four-stroke engine that ran on stove gas. It is not certain if he did indeed build a car, however, Delamare-Debouteville's designs were very advanced for the time - ahead of both Daimler and Benz in some ways at least on paper.
- 1885 - Gottlieb Daimler invented what is often recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine - with a vertical cylinder, and with gasoline injected through a carburetor (patented in 1887). Daimler first built a two-wheeled vehicle the "Reitwagen" (Riding Carriage) with this engine and a year later built the world's first four-wheeled motor vehicle.
- 1886 - On January 29, Karl Benz received the first patent (DRP No. 37435) for a gas-fueled car.
- 1889 - Daimler built an improved four-stroke engine with mushroom-shaped valves and two V-slant cylinders.
- 1890 - Wilhelm Maybach built the first four-cylinder, four-stroke engine.
Engine design and car design were integral activities, almost all of the engine designers mentioned above also designed cars, and a few went on to become major manufacturers of automobiles. All of these inventors and more made notable improvements in the evolution of the internal combustion vehicles.
The Importance of Nicolaus Otto
One of the most important landmarks in engine design comes from Nicolaus August Otto who in 1876 invented an effective gas motor engine. Otto built the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine called the "Otto Cycle Engine," and as soon as he had completed his engine, he built it into a motorcycle. Otto's contributions were very historically significant, it was his four-stroke engine that was universally adopted for all liquid-fueled automobiles going forward.
In 1885, German mechanical engineer, Karl Benz designed and built the world's first practical automobile to be powered by an internal-combustion engine. On January 29, 1886, Benz received the first patent (DRP No. 37435) for a gas-fueled car. It was a three-wheeler; Benz built his first four-wheeled car in 1891. Benz & Cie., the company started by the inventor, became the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles by 1900. Benz was the first inventor to integrate an internal combustion engine with a chassis - designing both together.
In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler (together with his design partner Wilhelm Maybach) took Otto's internal combustion engine a step further and patented what is generally recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine. Daimler's connection to Otto was a direct one; Daimler worked as technical director of Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik, which Nikolaus Otto co-owned in 1872. There is some controversy as to who built the first motorcycle, Otto or Daimler.
The 1885 Daimler-Maybach engine was small, lightweight, fast, used a gasoline-injected carburetor, and had a vertical cylinder. The size, speed, and efficiency of the engine allowed for a revolution in car design. On March 8, 1886, Daimler took a stagecoach and adapted it to hold his engine, thereby designing the world's first four-wheeled automobile. Daimler is considered the first inventor to have invented a practical internal-combustion engine.
In 1889, Daimler invented a V-slanted two cylinder, four-stroke engine with mushroom-shaped valves. Just like Otto's 1876 engine, Daimler's new engine set the basis for all car engines going forward. Also in 1889, Daimler and Maybach built their first automobile from the ground up, they did not adapt another purpose vehicle as they had always been done previously. The new Daimler automobile had a four-speed transmission and obtained speeds of 10 mph.
Daimler founded the Daimler Motoren-Gesellschaft in 1890 to manufacture his designs. Eleven years later, Wilhelm Maybach designed the Mercedes automobile.
If Siegfried Marcus built his second car in 1875 and it was as claimed, it would have been the first vehicle powered by a four-cycle engine and the first to use gasoline as a fuel, the first having a carburetor for a gasoline engine and the first having a magneto ignition. However, the only existing evidence indicates that the vehicle was built circa 1888/89 - too late to be first.
By the early 1900s, gasoline cars started to outsell all other types of motor vehicles. The market was growing for economical automobiles and the need for industrial production was pressing.
The first car manufacturers in the world were French: Panhard & Levassor (1889) and Peugeot (1891). By car manufacturer we mean builders of entire motor vehicles for sale and not just engine inventors who experimented with car design to test their engines - Daimler and Benz began as the latter before becoming full car manufacturers and made their early money by licensing their patents and selling their engines to car manufacturers.
Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor
Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor were partners in a woodworking machinery business when they decided to become car manufacturers. They built their first car in 1890 using a Daimler engine. Edouard Sarazin, who held the license rights to the Daimler patent for France, commissioned the team. (Licensing a patent means that you pay a fee and then you have the right to build and use someone's invention for profit - in this case, Sarazin had the right to build and sell Daimler engines in France.) The partners not only manufactured cars, but they also made improvements to the automotive body design.
Panhard-Levassor made vehicles with a pedal-operated clutch, a chain transmission leading to a change-speed gearbox, and a front radiator. Levassor was the first designer to move the engine to the front of the car and use a rear-wheel-drive layout. This design was known as the Systeme Panhard and quickly became the standard for all cars because it gave a better balance and improved steering. Panhard and Levassor are also credited with the invention of the modern transmission - installed in their 1895 Panhard.
Panhard and Levassor also shared the licensing rights to Daimler motors with Armand Peugeot. A Peugeot car went on to win the first car race held in France, which gained Peugeot publicity and boosted car sales. Ironically, the "Paris to Marseille" race of 1897 resulted in a fatal auto accident, killing Emile Levassor.
Early on, French manufacturers did not standardize car models - each car was different from the other. The first standardized car was the 1894 Benz Velo. One hundred and thirty-four identical Velos were manufactured in 1895.
Charles and Frank Duryea
America's first gasoline-powered commercial car manufacturers were Charles and Frank Duryea. The brothers were bicycle makers who became interested in gasoline engines and automobiles and built their first motor vehicle in 1893, in Springfield, Massachusetts. By 1896, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company had sold thirteen models of the Duryea, an expensive limousine, which remained in production into the 1920s.
Ransome Eli Olds
The first automobile to be mass produced in the United States was the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, built by the American car manufacturer Ransome Eli Olds (1864-1950). Olds invented the basic concept of the assembly line and started the Detroit area automobile industry. He first began making steam and gasoline engines with his father, Pliny Fisk Olds, in Lansing, Michigan in 1885. Olds designed his first steam-powered car in 1887. In 1899, with a growing experience of gasoline engines, Olds moved to Detroit to start the Olds Motor Works, and produce low-priced cars. He produced 425 "Curved Dash Olds" in 1901, and was America's leading auto manufacturer from 1901 to 1904.
American car manufacturer, Henry Ford (1863-1947) invented an improved assembly line and installed the first conveyor belt-based assembly line in his car factory in Ford's Highland Park, Michigan plant, around 1913-14. The assembly line reduced production costs for cars by reducing assembly time. Ford's famous Model T was assembled in ninety-three minutes. Ford made his first car, called the "Quadricycle," in June 1896. However, success came after he formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903. This was the third car manufacturing company formed to produce the cars he designed. He introduced the Model T in 1908 and it was a success. After installing the moving assembly lines in his factory in 1913, Ford became the world's biggest car manufacturer. By 1927, 15 million Model Ts had been manufactured.
Another victory won by Henry Ford was a patent battle with George B. Selden. Selden, who had never built an automobile, held a patent on a "road engine", on that basis Selden was paid royalties by all American car manufacturers. Ford overturned Selden's patent and opened the American car market for the building of inexpensive cars.