Today, grandpa's first automobile. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The U.S. government first
listed statistical data on automobiles in 1914.
They showed 1.7 million licensed cars. And, how
much all these new owners needed to know about the
care and feeding of cars!
A year later, McGraw-Hill published The
Gasoline Automobile — a book on how to cope
with these new machines. The first edition quickly
raced through fourteen printings.
Now it's 1920, and the second edition is in its
tenth printing. Over nine million Americans own
cars, and very few support services are in place.
Your grandpa, who's just bought his first car, is
on his own, so he buys this book.
The book doesn't favor any carmaker. It gives equal
time to Packards, Fords, Buicks and Cadillacs.
However, it takes only four pages to dismiss the
remaining steam and electric competitors of
gasoline automobiles. By now, gasoline rules the
Much of what follows might've appeared in my
college internal-combustion-engines textbook —
wonderful detailed drawings of engines, chassis,
gages, and ignition systems. The completeness is
astonishing. You could build your own automobile
from the information here. The book includes
performance data, graphs, schematic diagrams, and
It also offers wonderful perspectives. For example:
if grandpa didn't have a proper twelve-volt car
battery, he could buy six big dry cells at the
hardware store and wire them in series (the same
big batteries he used to power his telephone.) By
the way, you and I could also do that in a pinch —
if we thought of it.
The section on gear shifting describes two systems:
One is Ford's Model-T planetary gear
system. You have to use both foot pedals and a
dashboard lever. It's robust, but complicated. By
1920, most of Ford's competitors had gone to a
stick shift — three speeds forward and one
reverse. It'd be another seven years before Ford
finally put a stick shift on his new Model
You learn how to open the engine and scrape
accumulated sludge off the tops of pistons.
Back then, flooding was a major problem. If the
ignition wasn't firing, each time you cranked the
engine more gas condensed in the cylinder. You soon
had a puddle, and not enough air to burn it. The
easiest way to fix that was to leave it alone for
an hour or two. The puddle would evaporate.
Finally, grandpa learns to drive his new
car. And we read this wonderful warning:
Drivers have begun to realize the accuracy with
which a car may be steered. ... For this reason, it
seems natural for some drivers to display their
nerve in not turning from the center of the road
until they are almost upon the approaching
If the other driver is as courageous as you are,
we're told, that can be dangerous. So, not only did
grandpa have to learn to change flats and clean
spark plugs. Before the automobile came of age,
your young grandpa also had to learn not
to play chicken.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
(Antique automobile sound effect)
G. W. Hobbs, B. G. Elliott, and E. L. Consoliver,
The Gasoline Automobile. 2nd ed., New York:
McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc. 1920
For an array of images from the book, Click
Grandpa at the wheel, 1920.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.