Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 125:
FIRST AUTO

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 125.

Today, we track down the first auto. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The automobile is one of those engines of our ingenuity that always seem to have just one more antecedent. The first steam-powered road vehicles were made in the 18th century. But earlier cars had been driven by springs and by compressed air. Vehicles powered by windmills were built before them. Leonardo da Vinci sketched self-powered vehicles. And 2000 years before him, Homer wrote about such machines.

So let's limit our search to autos driven by internal combustion engines and to autos that were actually built. That laurel is usually given to Carl Benz. Benz believed in the internal combustion engine, and he worked single-mindedly to create an auto driven by one. He succeeded in 1885. He sold his first three-wheeled car in 1887; he went into production with a four-wheeled model in 1890; and today the Mercedes-Benz Company is still very much in business.

Benz, of course, wasn't first. The French inventor De Rochas built both an auto and an engine to drive it in 1862. So, too, did the Austrian Siegfried Marcus in 1864. Marcus's second auto was a pretty solid machine. In 1950 the Austrians pulled it out of the cellar of a Viennese museum. They found they could still drive it. It had been bricked up behind a false wall to hide it from the Germans during WW-II. Marcus was Jewish, and the Nazis had orders to destroy his car and any literature describing it.

That's as ironic as it is tawdry, because if the German, Benz, believed in the auto, Marcus didn't. In 1898 Marcus was invited as guest of honor at the Austrian Auto Club. He replied by calling the whole idea of the auto "a senseless waste of time and effort."

The search for the earliest internal-combustion-driven auto ends in England in 1826. An engineer named Samuel Brown adapted an old Newcomen steam engine to burn gas, and he used it to power his auto up Shooter's Hill in London.

Yet Benz succeeded where all those others didn't. Historian James Flink thinks that's because, just before Benz made his auto, the modern bicycle had come into being. It had set up the technology of light vehicles. And beyond that, it had also sparked the public demand for individual transportation. And that's why Benz succeeded 60 years after the first auto was built.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Flink, J. J., Innovation in Automotive Technology. American Scientist, Vol. 73, March/April 1985, pp. 151-161. ( I am uncertain of this citation. jhl)

This episode has been considerably rewritten as Episode 1596.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode