Today, let's try to find the first automobile. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The automobile is one more
invention that always seems to have just one more
antecedent. The earliest steam-powered car we know
about was finished as early as 1769 by French
inventor Nicolas Cugnot. It was a large
three-wheeled vehicle that moved at the speed of a
walk and was meant to haul cannon. Earlier cars had
been driven by springs and compressed air.
Windmill-powered vehicles were made before them.
Leonardo da Vinci sketched self-powered vehicles,
and even Homer wrote about them.
So let's limit our search to autos driven by
internal combustion, and to ones actually built. We
usually give that prize to Carl Benz. Benz
championed the new internal-combustion engines, and
he worked single-mindedly to create a car driven by
one. He built a little three-wheeled car in 1885
and sold his first one two years later. He went
into production with a four-wheeled model in 1890,
and the Mercedes-Benz company is still with us.
But Benz wasn't first. The French inventor de
Rochas built an auto, and an engine to drive it, in
1862. Two years later, the Austrian Siegfried
Markus began working on cars. His second one was
rediscovered in 1950. It'd been bricked up behind a
false wall in the cellar of a Viennese museum to
hide it from the Germans. Markus was Jewish, and
the Nazis had orders to destroy his car and any
literature describing it. By the way, when the car
was rediscovered, it could still be driven.
Markus' story is especially poignant because, if
the German Benz believed in the auto, he didn't. In
1898, Markus was invited to be guest of honor at
the Austrian Auto Club. He declined, calling the
whole idea of the auto "a senseless waste of time and effort."
The search for the earliest
internal-combustion-driven auto might end in
England in 1826. An engineer named Samuel Brown
adapted an old Newcomen steam engine to burn gas,
and he used it to power his auto up Shooter's Hill
in London. And here the whole priority question
mires into hair-splitting definitions.
What we usually do in these cases is pretty
arbitrary. We credit the first commercial success.
That's how Edison gets credit for the light bulb
and Fulton for the steamboat. By that definition,
Benz did invent the automobile.
Automotive historian James Flink notes that modern
bicycles came into being just as Benz began his
work, and they sparked the public demand for
personal vehicles. But bicycle-makers were the same
people who went on to make, first motorcycles, then
airplanes. They sowed the demand and then veered
off into another technology altogether. The people
who took up automobiles were closer kin to the
railway business. For a brief time, it looked as
though the steam car might beat out internal
So, if we go back to star-crossed priority
questions, we probably have to follow the thread of
steam. And that leads, not to Benz, but to Cugnot,
well over two centuries ago.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds