*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The 19th century produced a series of revolutions in transportation, yet it could be argued none have had a wider reach than the internal combustion engine. Patented by American Samuel Morey on April 1, 1826, the means for propelling the modern automobile would cause a dramatic shift in a variety of industries — not to mention individual lifestyles — that continues to this day.
The pathway to technological advancement began more than three centuries before, when Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci scribbled down the details of an engine that featured an encapsulated air-fuel mixture to drive the machine. Whether describing his own idea or relaying information about someone else’s, the Florentine master had opened the door for Morey ever so slightly.
Over the next 300 years, others made notations or early prototypes for a similar design — notably Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens in 1673 and English inventor Robert Street in 1794 — but the idea of internal combustion did not take hold until the 1820s. At the time, most machines were driven by steam power, with an external chamber burning fuel and creating pressure to drive the engine’s components through each phase of the operating cycle.
Morey, born and raised in Connecticut, began working with steamboats as early as the 1780s, tinkering with his father’s ferry. Made successful by the implementation of a paddle wheel to the boat, he earned several patents over the next three decades before turning his attention to internal combustion. The increased power generated by a controlled explosion fascinated Morey, giving him a fresh invention to focus on after receiving his last steam patent in 1817.
During the early 1820s, a number of important advancements were made in combustion technology. Most importantly, Samuel Brown, working at his laboratories in England, received a patent for creating a partial vacuum in the combustion chamber. His version of the “Leonardo cycle” — based on the painter’s descriptions — showed tremendous promise for application in industry.
Morey’s experiments were somewhat different. He built a two-chamber design, placing valves and cams near the top to allow for air intake and expulsion of exhaust before injecting water for cooling, not unlike modern iterations of his idea. The “Gas or Vapor Engine” received its patent on April 1, 1826 after he conducted lab tests to see if the concept would produce a working model.
Curious about the uses for this invention, Morey attached it to a wagon and climbed aboard to see if it could drive the wheels. Cranking up the engine, he was thrown to the ground as his rudimentary, driver-less automobile puttered down the street and into a ditch. Pleased with the results, he hoped to once again find legions of willing buyers for his engine as he had with his steamboat modifications years before.
Unfortunately, sales were nearly non-existent. Frustrated, he lamented the lack of interest in his notes with a vision for the future: “There is good reason I trust to conclude that transportation on good roads or railroad may be done much cheaper as well as quicker than by locks and canals.”
Fifty years later, a group of German engineers including Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and Karl Benz started producing their own internal combustion engines. Within just a few decades, the movement of goods and people would be revolutionized by wide adoption of the automobile.
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