Science and Invention

Henry Ford

Did Henry Ford invent the automobile?

No, while Henry Ford (1863–1947) transformed American industry and changed the way we travel, live, and work, he did not invent the automobile. Just before the turn of the century, there were several inventors who were tinkering with gas-powered vehicles, and by the time Ford had finished his first working car, the Duryea brothers (Charles, 1861–1938; Frank, 1869–1967) had demonstrated the first successful gas-powered car in the United States, and Ohio-born inventor Ransom Eli Olds (1864–1950) already had a car, the Oldsmobile, in production. Even prior to the work of these American inventors and entrepreneurs, Europeans had made strides in developing the automobile.

The automobile is the result of a series of inventions, which began in 1769 when French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725–1804) built a steam-powered road vehicle. In the early 1800s other inventors also experimented with this idea. And the steam-powered vehicle was put into production, both in Europe and the United States. In 1899 William McKinley (1843–1901) became the first U.S. president to ride in a car—a Stanley Steamer, built by twin brothers Francis (1849–1918) and Freelan (1849–1940) Stanley.

A breakthrough in developing gas-powered automobiles came in 1860, when an internal combustion engine was patented by Frenchman Étienne Lenoir (1822–1900). But the car as we know it was born in 1885 when Germans Gottlieb Daimler (1834–1900) and Carl Benz (1844–1929), working independently of each other, developed the forerunners of the gas engines used today. In 1891 to 1892 French company Panhard et Levassor designed a front-engine, rear-wheel drive automobile. This concept remained relatively unchanged for nearly 100 years. Until 1900 Europeans led the world in the development and production of automobiles. In 1896 the Duryea Motor Wagon Company turned out the United States’ first production motor vehicle. The gas-powered cars were available for purchase that same year.

The development of the car was helped by advances in rubber and in the development of pneumatic tires during the nineteenth century, with names like Charles Goodyear (American; 1800–60), John Boyd Dunlop (Scottish; 1840–1921), and the Michelin brothers (French), Andre (1853–1931) and Edouard (1859–1940), figuring prominently in automotive history.

Even after the gas engine was invented, which was ultimately more efficient than the steam engine, the car’s development continued along parallel tracks: About 1891 American William Morrison successfully developed an electric car. Electric cars were soon put into production, and by the turn of the century they accounted for just less than 40 percent of all American car sales.


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