The Invention of Automobiles

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The Invention of Automobiles


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Karl Benz (1844-1929) developed a gasoline-powered automobile, a significant improvement over the existing steam-powered devices. Henry Ford (1863-1947), in 1913, introduced the assembly line, lowering automobile production costs sufficiently that most families could afford their own car. This also heralded the start of mass production, which had significant impacts in virtually all areas of manufacturing throughout the world. The internal combustion engine eventually revolutionized transportation, industry, and farming, and has had significant impact on many environmental issues.


Transportation had changed very little between the time of the Romans and the early 1800s. People walked, rode horses, or rode in slow vehicles pulled by horses. At sea, people relied upon wind and muscle power. The first invention that began to make travel more efficient was the steam engine.

The first useful device using steam power was a pump for dewatering mines, introduced in 1698 by Thomas Savery (c. 1670-1715) in England. The first steam-powered transportation appeared in 1769, a carriage that would carry up to four people at a speed of slightly over 2 miles (3.2 km) per hour. This was the first automobile. It was not until Daimler and Benz, in 1885 and 1886, married the recently invented gasoline engine to a chassis, wheels, and a steering device that automobiles began to be useful, if expensive.

Although early automobiles look very little like modern machines, their basic design remains surprisingly similar. Both early and current cars have a gasoline-powered engine, four wheels (although Benz's 1885 automobile was three-wheeled), steering, and braking mechanisms all attached to a chassis with seats and a fuel tank. Obviously, the automobile has evolved over the decades, but the essentials remain the same.

Automobiles remained expensive until Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, changing cars from hand-crafted machines to mass-produced transportation appliances. With the advent of mass production, the cost for assembling a single car dropped so much that they became financially accessible to many families. Since that time, cars have become ubiquitous in all developed nations and in many less-developed countries as well, with concomitant changes in lifestyle, transportation, and environment.


It may be argued that the internal combustion engine and the automobile are among the most significant inventions in human history. The engine itself revolutionized all forms of transportation, each of which in turn had far-reaching impacts on society. As a form of transportation, the automobile has had an impact on nearly every person on Earth. Finally, the environmental impact of the automobile and its variants has been, and will likely continue to be, significant. Each of these areas will be discussed in further detail in the rest of this article.

The invention and popularization of the automobile has changed society in many countries in almost unimaginable ways. The automobile has made possible the mobile lifestyle common to most Americans. Until the advent of the automobile it was almost unheard of for working-class families to take extended family vacations, for people to work 20 or more miles from their home, to routinely visit friends or family more than a few miles away, and so forth. It is argued by some that the entire phenomenon of the suburbs is due to the automobile.

The automotive infrastructure dominates the landscape in many parts of the developed world and, increasingly, in the developing world. Parking lots, shopping malls, roads, and highways—not to mention car part shops, automobile dealerships, car washes, and repair shops—exist almost solely due to the ubiquity of automobiles in everyday life in the developed world. The movement of population away from city centers towards the suburbs also depends in large part on the presence of the automobile. In addition, many developing nations have or are building national road networks and are beginning to resemble the developed nations in this respect.

As a direct result of the rise of automobiles in the United States (in contrast to Europe and parts of Asia), the use of mass transportation has declined sharply and, in many cities, is almost nonexistent. Public train systems and subways exist in only a few cities and, in the majority of American municipalities, mass transportation must be heavily subsidized in order to exist at all. By comparison, Europe and parts of Asia, although developed, have not embraced the automobile with quite the fervor as Americans and have been more reluctant to establish suburban lifestyles or to abandon mass transportation. Because of this, many nations continue to have effective nonautomotive transportation networks and less land devoted to parking lots and roads. Another mitigating factor in this trend may be the relatively compact size of many nations compared to the United States, making mass transportation more convenient.

The ability to mass-produce automobiles and, later, other products has changed society as well. First developed as a way of making automobiles affordable to the general public, mass production quickly spread to virtually all forms of manufacture. It is hard to realize that, until this innovation, everything purchased was made by hand, much of it laboriously. Although the first assembly lines still utilized manual assembly, they set the stage for the highly automated assembly lines of today. This, in turn, has led to a relative abundance of inexpensive goods of high, consistent quality. In some industries, manufacture is now performed primarily by machines with little or no human intervention. A far cry from Henry Ford's first Model T assembly line, these factories are nonetheless a direct descendent of Ford's first plant.

In the environmental arena, the automobile has also had a dramatic impact on society and, potentially, the world. The construction of hundreds of millions of cars takes a tremendous amount of iron, aluminum, plastic, and rubber, not to mention the lead in car batteries, copper in wiring systems, and so forth. These materials must all be mined, transported to the manufacturing plant, turned into automobiles, and transported to the dealer for purchase.

To use the cars still requires burning petroleum products (except in rare instances), which must be extracted from the Earth, transported to a refinery, and made into fuel. All of these steps carry with them the potential for adverse environmental impact such as spills, fires, and more. In addition, every transportation step also involves the use of fossil fuels.

The combustion of petroleum (and many other substances) releases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, smoke, and other byproducts. Although the introduction of catalytic converters has reduced automotive emissions significantly in some parts of the world, these are not widely used in developing nations. As a result, air quality in many large cities is abysmal, leading to respiratory problems for the very young, the elderly, and the ill. In addition, although the scientific community remains deeply divided over the issue, there is the possibility that the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere may lead to widespread atmospheric and oceanic warming that could result in equally widespread climate changes. These changes could result in the polar ice caps melting, which would probably swamp many large cities, including Amsterdam, Dakka (Bangladesh), Washington D.C., and parts of Buenos Aires (Argentina), to name a few. However, it must be stressed that data regarding global warming is, as of this writing, still subject to great debate and interpretation. This is further complicated by the fact that the Earth's average temperature is continually changing, and the Earth at this time is cooler than is typical throughout the history of the planet.

All of these environmental changes must, of course, be weighed against the benefits that have come from the invention of the automobile. There is no doubt that today's world is an improvement in many ways over that of a century ago and that much of this improvement is due to the relative ease of transporting goods and people, enhanced farming techniques, and many of the other benefits noted above.


Further Reading

Gott, Philip G. Changing Gears: The Development of the Automotive Transmission. Society of Automotive Engineers, 1991.

Womack, James P., Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. The Machine That Changed the World. Rawson Associates Press, 1990.

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The Invention of Automobiles

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The Invention of Automobiles