Early Years Of Automobile History: 1672 1875

By Lawrence Reaves

Although the first modern car running on gasoline was developed by German inventor Karl Benz in 1885, there were a number of precursors that ran on steam. The earliest known design of a steam powered vehicle was invented by a Jesuit missionary to China from Flanders, Belgium, by the name of Ferdinand Verbiest, in around the year 1672. From his recorded description, it appears that this was just a tiny model or toy that was designed for the Chinese Emperor Kangxi. In fact, there is no proof that his design was ever actually built.

Following this, in 1769 Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot came out with a three wheeled vehicle that ran on steam, intended for use by the French Army in transporting cannons. There was initial interest and a second vehicle was produced in 1771. However, it could not generate steam for prolonged periods of time, making his device of little practical value, military or otherwise. Cugnot’s vehicle was stored in the arsenal, and was rediscovered by Artillery General Rolland in 1800, however Napoleon was uninterested in the project, and it was again mothballed.


In 1784, Scottish inventor William Murdoch created a steam carriage with three wheels, but he was discouraged from developing it further. However, another Briton, Richard Trevithick, who at one point lived next door to Murdoch and presumably saw his invention, built a primitive steam carriage of his own in 1801. In 1803 Trevithick followed this with the London Steam Carriage, which carried eight passengers ten miles through the streets of London at a top speed of 9 miles per hour. However this project failed to gather steam (figuratively speaking) after an unfortunate crash, and the vehicle was scrapped. However other models by other inventors soon followed, coupled witht he invention of the internal combustion engine in 1807. Such ‘road locomotives’ enjoyed their heyday in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s, however the first Locomotive Act passed in 1861 was so restrictive, including a speed limit, that it and subsequent similar legislation resulted in the virtual disappearance of such vehicles from British highways for some three decades. The 1865 Locomotive Act not only imposed a maximum speed of 4 miles an hour (2 miles an hour in towns) but it further required a man with a red flag to walk in front of the vehicle, and required it to stop in the presence of horses, making their legal use virtually impossible for the time being.

Steam carriages were legally more tolerated in France and the United States than in Britain during this time, but nevertheless remained an extremely rare sight amidst more traditional horse drawn traffic. In 1875, Wisconsin legislature announced a ten thousand US dollar prize to anyone who could produce a steam propelled vehicle that was practical and road worthy. To claim the prize, the carriage would have to travel 200 miles within 40 hours. Seven competitors entered the challenge, held in July 1878, but five of them failed even to start, and one broke down. The final entry successfully drove the entire route in about 33 and a half hours, however the inventors ended up getting somewhat stiffed as the state only awarded half the prize.

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