Innovation Moves Us



From the dawn of the Motor Age to the present day, roadways of the world have seen automobiles and engines of all sorts, and the question of how cars can or should be powered is one that has yet to be answered even today. Even the questions of who invented the automobile and how an automobile is defined are open to debate. The Benz Patent-Motorwagen, built in Germany during 1885 and patented the following year, is widely regarded as the world’s first automobile, but this is mainly because Karl Benz was able to turn his machine into a commercial success and because it featured a four-stroke internal combustion gasoline engine that would be familiar to modern motorists. In truth, self-propelled vehicles with engines of various kinds, including gasoline, predated the Benz Patent-Motorwagen by many years, with the roots of the motorcar going back much further than many realize.

Precursors to the modern automobile can be found as early as 1478, when Leonardo da Vinci sketched out a design for a basic wooden cart powered by coiled springs, while other very early examples include Flemish engineer Simon Stevin’s “land yacht” in around 1600, as well as Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest’s steam-powered trolley in the 1670s. These creations were novelties that didn’t inspire production, however, and since da Vinci’s machine was never built, Stevin’s land yacht was pushed along by the wind caught in sails, and Verbiest’s trolley was only about two feet long, their relation to modern cars is quite weak.

The spread of steam power in the late eighteenth century is what actually laid the foundation for creative minds to experiment with the idea of the motorcar, and though industrialization most immediately manifested itself in the railroads, it was the automobile that would prove the biggest leap forward in personal freedom and mobility. Be they the huge steam-powered carts made in France by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1770, the steam buses found in Britain during the 1830s and 1840s, or the Roper Velocipede and steam carriage made in Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1860s, self-propelled vehicles gradually began to find a place in the world and to spark imagination. The list of early motoring pioneers goes back surprisingly far and includes people from both sides of the Atlantic with backgrounds as diverse as the machines they created. Even as the automobile first truly came into its own in Western society during the late nineteenth century, there was incredible variety in how it was built and powered. Steam, electric, gasoline, and even hybrid engines all drove side by side. Each had its own advantages, disadvantages, and internal variations in both design and in the kinds of people who drove them. Each was rather different in concept and layout, but they all accomplished the same thing: moving us from place to place.

Eventually, one model of car design did win out. With the coming of the electric starter, developed by Cadillac’s founder Henry Leland, as well as the introduction of affordable gasoline-powered cars like the Ford Model T, steam and electric power were gradually phased out in the mainstream automotive world. The much-improved internal combustion engine offered greater range, convenience, and ease of operation than its rivals, and while gasoline- or diesel-powered cars have come a long way over the last century, the very latest examples are fundamentally similar to the very earliest.

Internal combustion has of course continued to evolve and spawned the vast array of vehicles that we know and love today, as well as inspired the minds driven to design, race, or restore automobiles. Internal combustion has become sort of an automotive status quo, and industries related to it, particularly the oil industry, have seen it in their interests to keep things this way even as the issue of fueling our cars has unsettlingly strong geopolitical implications around the globe. As the sustainability of fossil fuels is increasingly called into question, though, alternative powertrains are being explored and once again are gaining widespread attention from the public as well as the people who create cars. We are undoubtedly living in a formative period for the automobile, but as the old saying goes, history has a tendency of repeating itself. The conversation rages on as to how to harness energy and propel our personal vehicles, and it is a conversation that is as old as the motorcar itself. From early steam cars and electrics to gas-electric hybrids, two- and four-stroke, multi-cylinder engines, ram air, and forced induction, to name but a few concepts explored and employed, it appears that current trends in automotive design aren’t entirely new at all. Motoring’s illustrious past reveals to us that one thing is certain: innovation moves us, both in the physical sense and in our perpetual, passionate pursuit of technology, design, and speed.