History of the Automobile

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The automobile as we know it was not invented in a single day by a single inventor. The history of the automobile reflects an evolution that took place worldwide involving many different innovators.

Automobile Defined

An automobile or car is a wheeled vehicle that carries its own motor and transports passengers. It is estimated that over 100,000 patents led to the evolution of the modern automobile.

Which Was the First Car?

There are disagreements as to which automobile was the first actual car. Some claim it was invented in 1769 with the first self-propelled steam-powered military tractor invented by French engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. Others claim it was Gottlieb Daimler's vehicle in 1885 or Karl Benz's in 1886 when he patented the first gas-powered vehicles. And, depending on your viewpoint, there are others who believe Henry Ford invented the first true car due to his perfection of the mass production assembly line and the car transmission mechanism that cars today are modeled from.

Abbreviated Timeline of the Automobile

Dating back to the Renaissance of the 15th century, Leonardo DaVinci had drafted theoretical plans for the first automobile, as had Sir Isaac Newton a couple of centuries later.

Fast forward 40 years after Newton's death to the moment when French engineer Cugnot unveiled the first steam-powered vehicle. And, almost a century after that, the first gas-powered car and electric vehicles made their appearance.

The introduction of the mass production assembly line was a major innovation that revolutionized the automobile industry. Although Ford was credited with the assembly line process, there were others who came before him.

Following the introduction of cars came the need for the complex system of roads to drive upon. In the U.S., the first agency tasked with managing road development was the Office of Road Inquiry within the Department of Agriculture, established in 1893.

Components of the Car

There were many inventions that needed to come together to make the modern day cars we know today. From airbags to windshield wipers, here is a review of some of the components and the dates of discovery to give you a comprehensive look at how exhaustive end-to-end development can be.




Airbags are a safety feature in cars for the protection of vehicle occupants in the event of a collision. The first recorded patent in the U.S. was in 1951.

Air Conditioning

The first car with a cooling system for vehicle occupants was the 1940 model year Packard.

Bendix Starter

In 1910, Vincent Bendix patented the Bendix drive for electric starters, an improvement to the hand-cranked starters of the time.
Brakes In 1901, British inventor Frederick William Lanchester patented disc brakes.
Car Radio In 1929, American Paul Galvin, the head of Galvin Manufacturing Corporation, invented the first car radio. The first car radios were not available from car makers and consumers had to purchase the radios separately. Galvin coined the name "Motorola" for the company's new products combining the idea of motion and radio.
Crash Test Dummies The first crash test dummy was Sierra Sam created in 1949. Crash test dummies were used in place of humans in simulated auto crashes to test the road safety of automobiles created for mass use.
Cruise Control Ralph Teetor, a prolific (and blind) inventor, invented cruise control in 1945 to set a steady speed for a car on the road.
Differential Differentials are designed to drive a pair of wheels while allowing them to rotate at different speeds. This invention revolutionized carriage steering in 1810.
Driveshaft In 1898, Louis Renault invented the first driveshaft. A driveshaft is a mechanical component for transmitting force and rotation, which connects other components of the drive train, which powers the wheels.
Electric Windows Daimler introduced electric windows in cars in 1948.
Fender In 1901, Frederick Simms invented the first car fender, which was designed similar to the railway engine buffers of the period.
Fuel Injection The first electronic fuel injection system for cars was invented in 1966 in Britain.
Gasoline Gasoline, initially a byproduct of kerosene, was discovered to be great fuel for all the new cars that began rolling off the assembly lines. By the early 20th century, the oil companies were producing gasoline as a simple distillate from petroleum.
Heater Canadian Thomas Ahearn invented the first electric car heater in 1890.
Ignition Charles Kettering was the inventor of the first electrical starter motor ignition system.
Internal Combustion Engine An internal combustion engine is an engine that uses the explosive combustion of fuel to push a piston within a cylinder. In 1876, Nikolaus August Otto invented and later patented a successful four-stroke engine, known as the "Otto cycle."
License Plates The very first license plates were called number plates and were first issued in 1893 in France by the police. In 1901, the state of New York became the first state to require car license plates by law.
Spark Plugs Oliver Lodge invented the electric spark plug ignition (the Lodge Igniter) to light the explosive combustion of fuel in the car's engine.
Muffler French inventor Eugene Houdry invented the catalytic muffler in 1950.
Odometer An odometer records the distance that a vehicle travels. The earliest odometers date back to ancient Rome in 15 BC. However, the modern-day odometer for a carriage that was used to measure mileage was invented in 1854.
Seat Belts The first U.S. patent for automobile seat belts was issued to Edward J. Claghorn of New York on February 10, 1885.
Supercharger Ferdinand Porsche invented the first supercharged Mercedes-Benz SS & SSK sports cars in Stuttgart, Germany in 1923, which gave the combustion engine more power.
Third Brake Light In 1974, psychologist John Voevodsky invented the third brake light, a light that is mounted in the base of rear windshields. When drivers press their brakes, a triangle of light will warn following drivers to slow down.
Tires Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber that was later used for the first tires.
Transmission In 1832, W. H. James invented a rudimentary three-speed transmission. Panhard and Levassor are credited with the invention of the modern transmission installed in their 1895 Panhard. In 1908, Leonard Dyer obtained one of the earliest patents for an automobile transmission.
Turn Signals Buick introduced the first electric turn signals in 1938.
Power Steering Francis W. Davis invented power steering. In the 1920s, Davis was the chief engineer of the truck division of the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company and he saw first hand how hard it was to steer heavy vehicles. He developed a hydraulic power steering system that led to power steering. Power steering became commercially available by 1951.
Windshield Wipers Prior to the manufacture of Henry Ford's Model A, Mary Anderson was granted her first patent for a window cleaning device, later known as windshield wipers, in November 1903.
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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "History of the Automobile." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/automobile-history-1991458. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 25). History of the Automobile. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/automobile-history-1991458 Bellis, Mary. "History of the Automobile." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/automobile-history-1991458 (accessed March 31, 2023).