History buffs love to debate, especially when it comes to “who came first.” Which explorer discovered the New World? Did Newton or Leibniz develop calculus? Was Edison the lightbulb’s true inventor? Topics like this stir the passions and keep some arguments going for years. One issue that comes up occasionally is the matter of who built the first automobile. Like many other questions, this one defies an easy answer.
Part of the problem is defining the term. By today’s standards, an automobile is a mobile machine driven by an internal combustion engine and capable of transporting human beings. By this definition, 19th century German engineer Karl Benz deserves credit, thanks to the vehicle he patented in 1886.
Prior to Benz’s creation, however, several other inventors developed steam-powered autos. The first of these was built in 1672 by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit priest who fashioned a wheeled machine as a gift for China’s Emperor. Though it was too small for human transport, it’s the earliest known example of a self-powered vehicle.
Steam remained the fuel of choice for inventors over the next 200 years. Frenchman Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-propelled tractor in 1771. British engineer William Murdoch developed a steam carriage in 1784. Richard Trevithick is credited with building the first practical steam-powered car in 1801, using it to drive six friends around the streets of Camboerne Hill on Christmas Eve.
For a time, it appeared that Great Britain would be the epicenter of automotive technology. This changed, however, with passage of the 1865 Locomotive Act. It banned the use of public automobiles unless a man walked ahead of the machine waving a red flag. English authorities did not repeal this law until 1896.
The end of America’s Civil War hastened the development of practical automobiles, as technology took giant strides forward for the rest of the 19th century. Canadian Henry Seth Taylor built a steam-driven buggy in 1867, which he demonstrated at a town fair in Stanstead, Québec. Clergyman JW Carhart built a vehicle large enough for human transport in 1871. American George B Selden filed a patent for his own four wheeled car in 1879.
The first auto race was held in July 1878. The route covered the 201-mile distance from Green Bay to Madison, Wisconsin. Two entrants competed. The winner completed the route in 33 hours and 27 minutes with an average speed of 6 mph. He won $5,000 from the state legislature for his efforts.
By the end of the 19th century, steam engines were losing ground to petroleum-powered vehicles. Battery-driven cars enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But gasoline’s advantages gave it the decisive edge. To this day it remains the fuel of choice for most automakers.
At the dawn of the 21st century, a bevy of new technologies promises a golden age of safe, eco-friendly driving. Electric cars in particular are seeing a resurgence, as evidenced by the Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, and Tesla roadster.
Hydrogen fuel cells show potential as well, however, and may eventually prove more practical. As for what will power the automobiles of tomorrow, we will just have to wait and see.