One of the most significant events in the history of mankind was the invention of the wheel. Who and how and when and where the wheel was invented, remains obscured in the annals of history. The introduction of various modes of transport, such as carts and carriages, too remain a story of the evolution.
The history of the automobile, however, is a recent one and the major developments can be easily traced.
In about 1335 A.D., Guido da Vigevano, an Italian inventor came up with the initial sketch for the Wind Car. This “Windwagen” was perhaps the earliest automobile that was envisioned to be self-powered (without the use of animals to pull it). This automobile had a rudimentary engine made up of windmill sails. Later, in the 15th-century, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a design for a clockwork car that was powered by springs and used interlocking gears to pull it. It was much later, in the mid-1700s, though that a prototype clockwork engine was demonstrated by Jacques de Vaucanson.
Air Pump and Steam Powered Automobiles
One of the most significant developments of the 1600s, that influenced the evolution of automobiles, was the invention of the air pump by German inventor Otto von Guericke. Based on this air pump and Thomas Newcomen’s fire engine piston, steam pistons soon came to be the basis of many automobile prototypes. French Army Officer Nicholas Joseph Cugnot used this to design a three wheeled tractor in 1769 A.D. This is largely considered the world’s first automobile.
Another Frenchman, Isaac de Rivas, constructed a hydrogen gas powered engine, but his vehicle ran into ignition problems. Newly designed steam powered carriages and vehicles were tested all over Europe and in the United States (US) in the decades to come. Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, a Victorian inventor, designed and built a number of steam-powered carriages between 1825 and 1829. Serving the Gloucester-Cheltenham route, these coaches carried thousands of passengers at record speed.
Public transport added a page to its history with the introduction of steam-propelled vehicles in 1873, which were designed by Frenchman Amédée Bollée. The development of personal steam vehicles continued throughout the US and Europe till the 1930s, but soon the introduction of electricity would spark the possibility of harnessing electric power to fuel automobiles.
In 1828, Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik, came up with the design of a tiny car powered by an electric motor. Soon after, Thomas Davenport, an American, also fitted a car with a new DC electric motor that he had invented. At about the same time, Robert Anderson of Scotland and Gustave Trouve of France came up with their own models of electric car. Since then, the design and performance of electric cars have only kept improving, and there is now a renewed interest in these with growing concerns over the negative impact of gasoline on the environment.
Gasoline Powered Cars and Emergence of Automobile Companies
The 19th-century was a period of phenomenal inventions and discoveries and development of technology. The introduction of gasoline powered cars was indeed one of the most significant of inventions of the time. The introduction of the earliest gasoline powered cars by Karl Benz in 1885 and Gottlieb Daimler in 1886 are momentous events in the history of automobiles. Earlier, major improvements in engine design had been made by Étienne Lenoir of France and Siegfried Marcus of Austria. Much of the internal combustion engine built by Benz was based on learnings from these. It is, however, believed that the invention of the gas-based automobile was made in 1879 by US inventor George B. Selden. The following years saw the establishment of many automobile companies such as the Peugeot SpA, Renault, Fiat SpA, Isotta- Fraschini, Maserati, Alfa Romeo SpA, and Ferrari.
The Ford Revolution
The one man who can be single-handedly credited with sparking an automobile revolution, making cars available to the masses, is Henry Ford. The introduction of the Model T in 1908, after a number of other models, sparked an explosion in demand. Cars were no longer exclusive, but were cheaper, faster, and had become a necessity.
The history of automobiles is peppered with the quest to design and produce the fastest, the most efficient, and the most stylish car. This is evidenced by the huge demand for cars and the introduction of improved models each year.
Today, some cars have taken over the steering, lane-keeping, parking, and accident prevention functions from the driver, and the list of these functions is growing every year. On the horizon are the self-driving or autonomous cars, which will have the technology to drive themselves without any human intervention. However, with the oil reserves depleting, and concerns over environment increasing, what will now make the next greatest impact, it seems, will be the most environment-friendly automobile.