A Quick History Lesson: The First Automobile

June 13, 2017

Did you know that the first automobile was steam-powered?

Sounds like something out of a steampunk novel, right? But it's true! In 1769, French army engineer Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot created a steam-powered vehicle with the intent of replacing the horse-drawn carts used to transport cannons and artillery. Leonardo da Vinci had made concept sketches of such a machine and Isaac Newton theorized on the possibility of a self-propelled vehicle, but Cugnot actually manufactured the world's first automobile. As this word had yet to be coined, Cugnot called his invention ardier à vapeu, French for "steam dray".

Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

It didn't look much like what most people would call a car. It had only three wheels and was severely lacking in chassis. The engine was a giant cauldron set up front where water boiled until steam expanded, pushing pistons turning the crankshaft thus turning the wheels. Though the fuel source was ordinary water, the Cugnot had terrible mileage, requiring it to stop every ten to fifteen minutes for steam to build up all to reach the breakneck speed of 2.5 mph. The whole thing weighed about two and a half tons with a five-ton tow capacity and seated four, two of which needed to steer the unwieldy contraption. Poor weight distribution added to the instability of the vehicle. What's more, Cugnot forgot to invent brakes, giving him the dubious honor of not only inventing the first automobile, but the first automobile accident.

Unfortunately, Cugnot never really got the chance to "go back to the drawing board". Between the French Revolution, his pension being withdrawn and his patrons dying or being exiled, Cugnot himself went into exile in Brussels until 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte invited him back to Paris. Cugnot would die in October of that year. It wouldn't be until 1886 when Gottlieb Daimler's development of the internal combustion engine that the creation of an automobile became feasible again.

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About the Author

Guest Author is an automotive expert at RepairPal, the leading online source of auto repair resources and estimates. With many ASE Master certified mechanics on staff who have decades of experience, RepairPal knows all the fine points of car repair.

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