Nicolas Joseph Cugnot is commonly recognized as the first inventor of the automobile. A French engineer, Cugnot built the first automobile as a military tractor to transport heavy artillery in 1769. Although his invention was very slow (traveling just under three miles per hour) and broke down constantly (it had to rest around every 15 minutes), it served its purpose. In 1770, Cugnot built a successor to his military tractor by compiling a tricycle that could hold up to four passengers. Ironically, Cugnot ended up in the first automobile accident in 1771.
Steam engines were early versions of internal combustion engines. For example, steam engines would burn fuel to heat up water, which would evaporate and power the automobile's pistons, thereby moving the car. Although steam power was useful, it had its limitations. For example, steam engines were very heavy and were often more efficient for heavy locomotion units such as steam trains rather than for automobiles.
Even with these hindrances, other inventors over the course of a hundred years improved on Cugnot's design. For example, an American named Oliver Evans acquired a patent for his version in 1789. Steam-powered stage coaches would also prove to be popular with American inventors such as Joseph Dixon and William T. James inventing designs between 1860-1880. In addition to this, contests were held to further improve on the steam engine design. For example, the state of Wisconsin offered a $10,000 prize to the inventor who could finish first in a 200-mile race. Dr. J. W. Carhart was declared the winner in 1871, nearly 100 years after Cugnot's first automobile.