A Brief History of the Automobile

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The automobile is a much older concept than most people imagine. The present models are based on internal combustion designs from more than a century ago. However, a Jesuit priest in China designed and built a scale model of a steam-powered vehicle in 17th century China as a gift to the Emperor. This is the earliest record of any possible attempt to create a wheeled vehicle that ran on its own power rather than relying on animals to haul it. The 18th century also brought with it more designs that utilized steam power for small vehicles, such as tricycles. None of these efforts ever achieved popularity.

The First Popular Models

It was not until 1806 that a car based on the now-familiar internal combustion engine appeared. This vehicle used fuel gas to power its engine. With how ubiquitous cars are now, it may seem hard to believe that this idea did not catch on quickly. Not until the late 19th century did cars based on this design begin to proliferate in the western world. Steam-powered vehicles were forgotten entirely. Electric-powered vehicles appeared early in the 20th century but never caught on.

During the late 19th century, automobiles were largely seen as novelties rather than as the indispensable possessions of billions of people and industries. However, some of the biggest names in automobile history started their companies in this period. Ransom Olds had a production line operating by 1902. Cadillac and Ford were also founded at this time.

The technology involved in operating automobiles went through many changes and developments during late 19th and early 20th century. Previously, drivers had steered cars with tillers. The Rambler Company developed the steering wheel in 1903 and positioned the driver on the left-hand side of the vehicle rather than in the previous middle position. The earliest models were single-speed vehicles. During this first decade of the 20th century, standard drives and drum brakes were both developed.

Mass Production

Companies such as Olds and Ford began to churn out an increasing number of these vehicles at this point, due to several factors. Prosperity in the years prior to the First World War allowed many more people to consider purchasing cars. The assembly line concept allowed car companies to not only turn out more cars but also to lower the price, which made the car affordable for a larger class of people. IN turn, increased sales allowed Ford, Olds and others to lower prices even more.

Henry Ford is remembered as the pioneer of mass production but the concepts of assembly lines and interchangeable parts had been previously developed by others. Ford, however, managed to develop this idea into an exact science. By the time that hostilities began in Europe in 1914, he was producing a new car every fifteen minutes. In fact, his assembly lines were making cars so fast that the time that paint needed to dry caused a bottleneck that slowed down the sales of the cars being produced. For this reason, Ford painted his Model-T’s exclusively with Japan black, which dried faster than any other paint.

The designs for cars continued to develop after the conclusion of the First World War. The number of possible cylinders in automobile engines increased to eight and then 12 and even 16. Malcolm Loughead, who would later found the company known today as Lockheed, invented the hydraulic brake in 1919. In the 1920’s, Hermann Rieseler devised the first automatic transmission but it would not enter production until the 1940’s.

Post-War Era Cars

The end of World War II left much of the world devastated. As economies rebuilt, they left behind the horse-drawn wagons that had still driven much of the world’s activity. American factories began to pump out cars rather than tanks. As prosperity returned around the world, the automobile became the sign of this recovery.

The earliest years after the war were dominated by companies based in the United States. As the decades passed, however, many European countries began to develop their own popular models and produce them in large numbers. Japan founded an automobile manufacturing industry and soon began to compete with western producers. Soon, Ford, Cadillac and Olds were competing with companies such as Sweden’s Saab, Germany’s Volkswagen and Japan’s Toyota.

Modern Era Vehicles

The modern era has ended the American hegemony in car production and experienced a transformation of interests in the automobile. Previously, car buyers were attracted by size and style. Concerns about fuel efficiency and the environment have driven design changes that have resulted in smaller vehicles and a return to the possibilities presented by the electric designs from more than a century ago that were dropped in favor of the internal combustion engine. Once again, the world of the automobile is awash with design innovations, as car companies look to create vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen and even solar power.

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