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Who Actually Invented The Automobile?

February 2, 2021, 12:00 am

Being one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind, it’s easy to see why there’s plenty of controversies attached to the various claimants of the first car. Who actually invented the first automobile? It’s really a matter of definition. 

Many historians credit Karl Benz with the creation of the first car, a title that both his company, Mercedes-Benz, and his country, Germany, have taken a lot of pride in over the past century. And it’s true that Benz did invent what was a viable, patented vehicle with an internal combustion engine. By that definition, Benz’s claim is rather strong. 

But if the definition is expanded to self-propelled, then Benz may have been several centuries too late. Leonardo DiVinci designed a contraption that was powered by a massive, tightly-wound spring, much like a wind-up toy. His sketches never evolved into an actual prototype, but in 2004, a group of researchers set out to build Divinci’s design and, to their delight, it worked! It was a vehicle that would have been nearly impossible to be built in the 1500s, but it was the first functioning blueprint, even if it would take over five hundred years to be proven operational. 

There’s another claimant to the title that seems a bit closer to the mark. The French still believe their man, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, invented the first car in 1769. Again, it’s a matter of definition. His invention operated on three wheels and moved along at just four kilometers per hour; you could walk faster. Still, it served a purpose for the military as a way to haul cargo, albeit a painfully slow option. The caveat to Cugnot’s claim, however, is that his vehicle was powered by steam and borrowed much of its design from trains. In fact, his design was something closer to a trackless train than an automobile as we might recognize it. 

Like most inventions, we give Benz the credit because he was the first to make it official. He was able to patent his design on January 26, 1886. Just four years later, he would offer the world a four-wheeled car that looked, functioned, and handled in ways that even drivers today would instantly recognize as a car. 

In some ways, the French took the baton and, for a short while, ran with it. While the Germans were tinkering and designing prototypes, France pushed ahead by actually selling cars to thousands of people through its first car manufacturer, Peugeot. It wasn’t until 1901 that the United States got in the game, with Eli Olds beating Henry Ford to the punch with his Curved Dash Oldsmobile. By 1915, however, Ford and the Americans were the undisputed kings of the road, putting a staggering 17 million Model Ts into the world; by 1925, their assembly lines and distribution plans had lowered the price to just $250, an amount that made the Model T accessible to millions of families across the US and around the globe.

Posted by Garfield Auto at 12:00 am
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