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The First Automobiles and the Changes They Brought to American Life

written by: Jarod Saucedo • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

The first automobiles were often regarded as novelties; however, this changed when technology improved drastically. As a result, early automobiles became cheaper and more efficient while radically changing American life.

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    A Complicated History

    Self-Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci To pinpoint the exact date that the first automobiles were invented is an impossible task. Although there are literally dozens of inventors who designed their own versions of automobiles, it would be more accurate to say that these inventors improved on the design of these first automobiles by implementing new innovations such as better engines. One interesting fact is that the idea of an "automobile" is not a novel aspect; inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton were known to have sketched early designs of automobiles; however, they never actually built these models. Although they were simply ideas, the history of the effects of automobiles on our society tells us a lot about evolving ideas and technology.

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    Steam Power

    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.Engine of the Cugnot Machine 

    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.

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    Rise of Electric Automobiles

    Detroit Electric Car 1919 Improving on steam engines, inventors turned to another source of energy to power their cars: electricity. Like steam engine automobiles, electric cars had a long history that started from around the 1830s to the 1930s, and it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly invented the electric car. It is clear that Scottish Robert Anderson invented the first electric carriage; however, more successful electric cars are credited to Thomas Davenport and Robert Davidson. In 1842, these two were able to incorporate electric cells for automobiles to move; however, they were nonrechargable.

    Other inventors continued to improve the battery life and speed of electric automobiles, and one of the most famous electric cars was Belgium's Camille Jenatzy who designed an automobile that could achieve up to 68 miles per hour in 1899. By this time, electric cars became all the rage due to their silent engines and clean exhaust. From 1900-1930, electric cars such as the 1902 Wood's Phaeton became very popular; however, most of these cars were very expensive.

    Although electric cars were very efficient and clean in their combustion, they were limited in driving ranges. These early automobiles were also very expensive versus other car types such as the steam and early combustion engine automobiles. With the advent of cheaper alternatives such as gasoline and the modernization of the assembly line, electric cars soon fell to their gasoline cousins.

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    Rise of Gasoline Powered Automobiles

    The first automobiles that were gas-powered were designed during the same period as electric cars. Like electric automobiles, gas-Nicolaus August Otto powered cars had an extensive history in the design of the internal combustion engine. Although past inventors had designed an internal combustion engine for gasoline, it wasn't until future innovators such as Nicolaus Otto, Karl Benz, and partners Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach that gasoline automobiles would become popular.

    Nicolaus Otto took the first step in actually designing a vehicle that would use gasoline in an internal combustion engine. In 1876, Otto designed "Otto Cycle Engine" which he crafted into a motorcycle. Next was Karl Benz who designed the first gas-powered automobile in 1885 by using an internal combustion engine. By 1900, Benz started a company that would become one of the largest automobile manufacturers that still exists today. Improving on Otto's gas engine, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach improved the design by incorporating a cylinder system. According to Mary Bellis, "On March 8, 1886, Daimler took a stagecoach and adapted it to hold his engine, thereby designing the world's first four-wheeled automobile."

    Due to these advances, the first automobiles that were gas-operated became widely popular starting around the 1900s. This is because fuel at the time became cheaper to buy rather than electric cells as well as the costs to maintain steam automobiles. The engine's history and effects of the automobile on society would come to dominate the market at the turn of the century when the assembly line model became popular with inventors such as Ransome Eli Olds and Henry Ford.

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    Rise of the Assembly Line

    1908 Ford Model T The first automobiles--no matter the design--took a long time to assemble. This all changed with the minds of both Ransome Eli Olds and Henry Ford. Olds first entered the scene by designing steam automobiles and later changing to gasoline operated automobiles. Stationed in Detroit, Olds introduced an early concept of the assembly line in which workers would focus on designing one part of the automobile. This system allowed cars to be produced more quickly and Olds became known for being the main automobile manufacturer between 1901-1904. During this time frame he was known to produce automobiles called "Curved Dash Olds."

    Taking Old's early concepts of the assembly line, Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry by introducing a more efficient version of the assembly line by implementing a conveyor belt system. Ford is known for producing the gas-operated automobile called the "Model T" in 1908 and by 1913 he became the largest manufacturer due to his system. It is estimated that he sold over 15 million Model Ts by the end of the 1920s.

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    How Automobiles Changed American Life

    Following Henry Ford's efficient system of providing cheap and reliable cars, many automobile manufacturers followed his lead. With the costs of labor and automobile parts declining, the American public could finally afford these automobiles that were once acknowledged as expensive novelties. Rather than traveling by train or horses, Americans latched onto buying gasoline automobiles (such as the Model T) to travel long distances as well as having reliable transportation, unlike electric and steam-operated automobiles which had constant maintenance issues.Generator Transport in Iraq 

    These first automobiles paved the way for Americans and certainly for people worldwide to enjoy the pleasure of travel as well as the ability to transport items across the country. Farmers could employ automobiles to travel across rough terrain while the wealthy could enjoy high-end cars in order to demonstrate their social class. Overall, even though these early automobiles were largely remarked as experiments, automobiles today continue to evolve and provide countless services such as distributing goods more effectively and remaining a stable form of transportation.

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    • Smithsonian. "Early Cars: Fact Sheet for Children."


    • Cress-Dale Photo Co. "Detroit Electric Car Charging."
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    • Herrara, Daniel. "Generator Transport in Iraq."
    • Leonardo da Vinci. "Self-Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci."
    • PHGCOM. "Engine of the Cugnot Machine."
    • Rmhermen. "1908 Ford Model T."