What came first – roads or cars? You may think roads, but that’s incorrect! Cars changed the way our cities look today. Until its invention, people used different modes of transportation to move around. The journey of travelling from walking to driving is a bumpy one but definitely fun to learn about. Just imagine what the first-ever car would have looked like? Who made it? What technology was used to make it?
Unlike many other inventions, the car was not an accidental discovery. It is a combination of so many big and small inventions, that happened gradually over a period of time. Hence when you start tracing back the evolution of the car, there’s no one particular day/person who can be given the credit for this amazing and useful invention.
Yet one can consider the invention of steam engines as the stepping stone that later led to the invention of cars.
What is the steam engine?
Steam (pink), water (blue) Valves open (green), valves closed (red)
A steam engine is a machine that does mechanical work using steam as working fluid. It uses the force produced by the steam pressure to move a piston forward and backward inside a closed chamber. This pushing force is put to work. This is a type of external combustion engine in which coal is burnt to generate steam, which is made to travel through the pipes to give heat to the engine, which ultimately moves the pistons back and forth. The first steam engine was discovered by British inventor and manufacturer Thomas Newcomen in 1712. In 1764, inspired by Newcomen’s invention, the Scottish mechanical engineer James Watt invented the steam engine that was much smaller and more powerful than its predecessor.
Large Watt engines soon found their way into factories, where they became the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution and people did away with horses for operating pumps and other machines.
1769 – First Steam Powered Automobile
Discovery of the steam engine had led to people understanding its many uses. Despite the steam engines being too big and heavy to be used on vehicles, it didn’t stop some people from trying out the idea. One such person – Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, a Frenchman, in 1769 used steam-engine technology to make a three-wheeled tractor for pulling heavy army cannons. Many people consider this the world’s first car, but it was incredibly primitive by today’s standards. With a top speed of just 5 km/h.
1824 – Carnot Cycle
A French army engineer by the name Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot in 1824 wrote the original book of car science, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire. His book was the first proper explanation of how engines worked, why they made power, and how you could make them even more effective.Even though his book came many decades after the first steam engines were built, it inspired many other scientists Like Rudolf Diesel to come up with inventions like Diesel engines that became important later. In fact, Carnot’s theory of how engines work, remains the centrepiece of thermodynamics (the scientific study of heat) till date. This is why he is referred to as the Father of Thermodynamics.
1839: Vulcanized Rubber
Away from all the steam engine related discoveries, an American chemist by the name of Charles Goodyear discovered something important in 1839. He made his big breakthrough when he accidentally dropped a piece of rubber that contained sulphur on a hot stove. To his surprise, instead of melting, it turned into a hard black mass. This is how he developed the tough black rubber we use in tyres of any vehicle today by a process now known as vulcanization, named after Vulcan, the Roman God of fire.
1850: Spark Plug
1 ‐ Induction 2 ‐ Compression 3 ‐ Power 4 ‐ Exhaust
Joseph Étienne Lenoir, a French-Belgian engineer was experimenting with electricity in the 1850s. Back in the days, street lamps were naked flames fed by gas pipes. Lenoir tried igniting some of these street-lamp gas in a metal tin using an electric spark. His “spark plug” (as we now call it) would make the gas explode with a thump of power that could push a piston. This thumping explosion of power, if repeated steadily, could drive a machine. The “gas engines” Lenoir built made as much power as 1.5 hp (horsepower). In 1863, Lenoir fixed one of them to a three-wheeled cart and built a very crude car. It made an 18-km (9-mile) journey in 11 hours—four times longer than it would have taken to walk.
1876:Gasoline powered 4 stroke engine
Reworking on Lenoir’s engine, a German engineer named Nikolaus Otto replaced the gas in the engine with gasoline (a liquid fuel) in 1876, and made the first efficient gasoline engine, which worked by methodically repeating the same four steps (or “strokes”) over and over again. Practically every liquid fuel-powered car engine has worked the same way ever since.
1885: Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen
German engineer Karl Benz (founder of the Mercedes-Benz automobile company) studied Otto’s work and aimed to improve it. After building a gasoline engine of his own, he fixed it to a three-wheeled carriage and made the world’s first practical gas-powered car in 1885. He took his wife’s advice and added gears for uphill driving. Soon he was developing successful four-wheel cars and, by the start of the 20th century, was the world’s leading car maker.
1890s: Diesel Engine
Rudolf Diesel, another German mechanical engineer built a prototype of an engine 3m (10 ft) high that could run on practically any fuel, from diesel to even oil made from peanuts and vegetables. This first diesel engine made twice as much power as a steam engine. Along with the Diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel was also the pioneer of biofuels.
1908: Assembly Line Functioning
By the start of the 20th century, gasoline-engined cars were fast, reliable, and extremely expensive. In 1893, Karl Benz’s simple Viktoria car had a price tag of £9,000 (about ₹ 44,17,000 today) and hardly anyone could afford one. But that changed in 1908 when an American engineer named Henry Ford launched his car – Model T, a car everyone could afford. Ford sold around 15 million Model T Fords within a span of a few years. This was possible due to his mass production technique – the assembly line.
Assembly line functioning is a setup that functions on a conveyor belt, where parts of the car slowly move past a series of workers. Each mechanic is trained to do one particular job. As the parts of a car move on, bit by bit the entire car is built and made into a whole. This setup today is used in the production of countless products, from automobile to packaging to electric appliances and even poultry!
1940s: The Birth of Porche and the Volkswagon
German dictator Adolf Hitler gave Henry Ford a medal for making cars affordable. Inspired by the Model-T Ford, Hitler asked German auto-maker, Dr Ferdinard Porsche, to develop a simple people’s car or “Volkswagen” called the KDF (Kraft Durch Freude or Strength through Joy). Renamed the Beetle, it sold over 20 million units worldwide and was one of the most popular cars of the 20th century.
Henry Ford pioneered assembly line functioning, but General Motors took it a quantum leap further in 1961. That’s when the first-ever car-making robot started building car bodies at the GM plant in Ewing, New Jersey.
1970s–1990s: Rise of Japanese Automobile Industry
Until the 1970s American and European car firms dominated car production. Then Japanese manufacturers such as Nissan, Honda, Mazda, and Toyota began their production. Compared to their western competitors, the Japanese manufactured cheaper cars and exported them to the West. The West tried to restrict these imports by increasing import tariffs, to which the Japanese responded by exporting their factories instead. Honda became the first Japanese maker to open plants in the United States and Canada in the early 1980s.
2000 – 2020: The Modern Times
The last two decades have seen a series of innovations in the evolution of cars like the power steering, tubeless tyres, inbuilt navigation and cruise control. Amongst many other things, electric cars have become the latest trend with companies like Tesla dominating the space with electric cars that can outperform traditional supercars on all counts. Despite what you might think, electric vehicles are actually older than gasoline-driven ones, but it’s taken well over a century for them to catch up with the competition.
Among other inventions, companies like Google are reportedly working on developing cars with onboard sensors (like ‘radar’ and ‘lidar’) that can navigate their way around the world while the people inside sit back and enjoy the view. Part robot, part computer, part old-fashioned automobile, these hybrid machines are likely to prove far safer and much more environmentally friendly than cars driven by us careless, fallible humans!
There can be endless possibilities of how a car can be modified to be more useful, more efficient and environmentally friendly. With all the amazing inventions that the car is made up of today, one still wonders what would it take to invent a car that can fly or a car that runs on seawater as a fuel. What do you think will be the next big invention in the world of cars? Share with us in the comment section below.
Charu, a feminist and an accidental writer, is yet to master the art of writing about herself. Always curious to learn new stuff, she ends up spending a lot of time unlearning the incorrect lessons. She enjoys all sorts of stories – real, fictional, new, old, hers and would love hearing yours too. Feel free to ping her at email@example.com to share anything that you think is worth sharing.
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