Monday, June 15, 2015

Automobiles Between Cugnot (1768) And Benz (1886)

If you're anything like me, you've heard a lot about Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's steam-powered powered vehicle built in 1768, often referred to as the first automobile:

and about Karl Benz' car made in 1886, with a petroleum-fueled internal-combustion engine and often referred to as the first "true" automobile:

and just about exactly Jack W Squat about automobiles built between 1768 and 1886, and so you're really looking forward to reading this. I know slightly more than squat. Just slightly.

According to, Cugnot's vehicle "was said to have run for 20 minutes at 2.25 miles (3.6 km) per hour while carrying four people and to have recuperated sufficient steam power to move again after standing for 20 minutes." Many fat people can move at 2.25 miles per hour for 20 minutes and then move again after 20 minutes' rest, and many fat horses can do much better than that, and of course, generally speaking, lean people and horses can do much better still, so clearly, Cugnot's achievement was notable for its novelty much more than for its utility. Still, first is first. Chapeau, Monsieur Cugnot!

Two Englishmen built automobiles in the 1780's: William Murdock operated a model steam carriage in 1784, and Robert Fourness exhibited a full-sized steam tractor in 1788. I have no statistics about how long or fast these vehicles ran.

The next self-propelled road vehicle I've been able to identify was built by Charles Dallery of Amiens in 1790. I know absolutely nothing at all about the vehicle except that it was steam-powered and ran on roads. Dallery was known for many inventions besides this automobile. I also have no details to give about the steam vehicles of Nathan Read of Salem, Massachusetts, and Apollos Kinsley of Hartford, Connecticut, other than that they ran between 1790 and 1800.

Apparently steam-powered trains and ships were not in operation until after 1800. Automobiles were first. But of course, once steam engines were put into railway engines and ships, they developed very rapidly and greatly outstripped the achievements of early- and mid-19th automobiles. The steam engines of this era, it seems, were simply a bit too big and heavy to work well on the open road.

Still, people tried. Steam buses were running in Paris around 1800. Who designed and built them, and how well they ran, I cannot tell you. A steam dredge built by Oliver Evans ran in Philadelphia in 1804 -- again, I have no idea how well it ran.

For several months in 1833 or 1834 an automobile service operated by Sir Charles Dance carried paying passengers for 9 miles each way, 4 round trips daily, between Gloucester and Cheltenham in England. How big this vehicle was, how many passengers it could carry at once, or even whether we're talking about one vehicle or several, I have not been able to determine. says it managed the 9-mile stretch in 45 minutes "under favourable conditions," but it seems that conditions were often far from favourable, with frequent breakdowns. The carriage made itself quite unpopular with local people by its noise, smokiness and the considerable damage which it caused to the roads.

Walter Hancock is said to have operated the most successful road-going steam carriage business of the 1830's, from 1831 to 1838, with 9 vehicles, or possibly more, covering routes as lengthy as that between London and Cambridge. But the vehicles continued to be extremely unpopular with the general public, and also the horse-carriage industry, and by 1840 extreme legal measures began to be put in place which essentially ended the steam-automobile business in England, although inventors continued to turn out improved models which they were only allowed to operate on roads on private land. Also, steam-powered tractors began to appear and to function well enough that some farmers preferred them to horse-drawn models. Between the 1830's and the 1880's steam-powered vehicles were allowed to run on the roads in the US and several European countries, inventors managed to make steam engines smaller and smaller for such vehicles, and railways, steamships and bicycles were all much more successful commercially -- and written about much more extensively.

So I didn't have all that much delightful information to share with you. In 1885, Karl Benz ran a two-stroke, one-cylinder gasoline-powered car for four laps on a cinder track, stalling "only" twice before its drive-chain (yeah, like on a bicycle or motorcycle) snapped, and it was still a huge, triumphant improvement over steam, and the rest is extremely well-documented history. I suppose you might sum up the era of road-going automobiles between 1768 and 1886 in the sentence: "Steam didn't really work."

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