What was the first firm formed to construct a car?
Even should you don’t know off the highest of your head, you’d assume the answer would be roughly forthcoming. At the very least, you’ll find a way to probably guess the decade—the 1880s seems doubtless. That’s when the Benz Patent-Motorwagen was introduced, after all.
But if you look beyond gasoline-powered internal combustion and start dabbling in, say, steam, the timeline will get pushed back many years. Steam wagons have been plying roads in France within the 1870s, for instance. Was a company formed to construct such a contraption not, arguably, a automobile company?
As with so many historical rabbit holes, the further you dig, the stranger, and extra intriguing, things get—and the further again in time you need to journey to get a way of where it all started. What I discovered when I started exploring the early history of the automotive will, if nothing else, make for nice trivia for these publish London-to-Brighton (or Lansing-to-Dearborn) Run ingesting classes.
First, what can we mean by car?
This is usually a trite tactic, but to set the ground guidelines here, I’m going to show to the dictionary: Merriam-Webster defines an “automobile” as “a normally four-wheeled automotive”—that is to say, self-propelled—“vehicle defined for passenger transportation.”
The energy source isn’t significantly necessary right here; it could possibly be inner combustion, electrical energy, steam or even (if you need to get actually fanciful) clockwork or something. But that final part of the definition, the intention of passenger transportation, is a complicating issue when we’re trying to find out who constructed the first car—let alone who started the first automobile company.
For example, a preferred left-field alternative for the primary automobile is Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, whose 1769 steam wagon at first glance meets—however nominally—almost the entire primary criteria for one thing we’d classify as an automobile: It was self-propelled, derived its propulsion from some mechanical means (weird contraptions like the horse-powered Cyclopede means this is a crucial distinction to make), was at least theoretically steerable and operated independently of rails. Here’s a replica in motion:
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I’m not totally unsympathetic to this argument, but Cugnot’s wagon was designed to pull artillery, not haul individuals; that its operators may journey on it because it crept alongside at a snail’s pace was incidental. It was not, then, intended to be a personal mobility device. By this criteria, we will additionally ignore land locomotives and any similar automobiles the aim of which was traction, quite than transportation.
An illustration—apparently not a really correct one—of Evans’ Oruktor Amphibolos, a self-propelled, steam-powered amphibious dredge.Hulton ArchiveGetty Images
It’s normally assumed that America lagged far behind Europe when it got here to 18th-century automotive improvement. But Oliver Evans’ curious, little-known Oruktor Amphibolos—an amphibious steam-powered digger/dredger that, on July thirteen, 1805, reportedly crawled down the streets of Philadelphia to the Schuylkill River—proves that New World inventors had been as captivated by the concept of mechanical mobility as those throughout the Atlantic.
In fact, as the Automobile Quarterly publication The American Car Since 1775 discusses, Evans constructed the Oruktor as a end result of he might get funding for it; passenger-carrying steam carriages have been his eventual goal. Yet like Cugnot, the machine he did handle to construct wasn’t a passenger vehicle, per se, so no cube for Mr. Evans here.
What will we mean by automotive company?
There are a shocking number of surviving car companies that can trace their roots back centuries; notably, Peugeot was based in 1810 and spent the mid-19th century cranking out coffee mills earlier than shifting into bicycles and, finally, cars. The firm that grew to become Pierce-Arrow was established circa 1872 to make birdcages, amongst other sundry goods. Obviously, none of those would qualify as the oldest firm based to make cars—they occurred into automobiles many years after going into enterprise.
The Benz Patent-Motorwagen of 1885. A contender for the title of first purpose-built inside combustion-powered automobile, but by no means the primary automobile.ullstein bild Dtl.Getty Images
Even Mercedes-Benz is a doubtful alternative. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabric was founded in 1883, and producing inner combustion engines was amongst its major aims. However—and importantly for the aim of this exploration—these have been initially intended for industrial gear.
The famed Benz Patent-Motorwagen arrived just a few years later, in 1885, and despite its delicate look and tricycle configuration, it is a remarkably subtle, surprisingly totally realized machine. It would possibly nicely be thought-about the primary severe inner combustion-powered automobile, and its successor, the four-wheeled Velo, is certainly one of many first profitable manufacturing inner combustion-powered automobiles.
Yet however natural the move into car production was for Karl Benz, whether or not it was all the time part of the plan when he founded Benz & Cie. is pure conjecture. Here, we’re attempting to determine who was the first to enter business with the first aim of constructing automobiles.
What about tinkerers and inventors?
Further, I’m going to distinguish between a tinkerer who happened to construct something vaguely car-like and the founding of the first automotive company. To qualify, this needs to be an individual or persons, ideally operating as some sort of authorized entity, with commercial ambition. And while they don’t necessarily have to have been profitable in the long or even medium term, they do must have at least produced something aside from debt and paperwork for it to rely for the needs of this research.
This is a minimal of partly out of convenience; we’d like some kind of surviving report of the hassle for it to even present up on the fashionable radar, and that’s much more likely to exist for an precise firm than for some impartial, self-funded futurist/crackpot working in a shed.
Further, there have been a quantity of visionary attempts on each side of the Atlantic to lift cash for automotive tasks that have been simply too far forward of their time to go wherever. As early as 1804, Oliver Evans attempted to determine what he called the Experiment Company to boost funds for steam wagon building but did not get hold of the capital (again, that is detailed in The American Car Since 1775). So, they don’t depend here.
Richard Trevithick’s 1803 London Steam Carriage, though reportedly road-tested efficiently, was unable to attract commercial interest and was later scrapped.Science & Society Picture LibraryGetty Images
One borderline case is Richard Trevithick’s London Steam Carriage, built in partnership with Trevithick’s cousin, Andrew Vivian, in 1803. This was, like other steam wagons to observe, reportedly a conventional horse-drawn carriage passenger compartment mounted on a steam-driven chassis. It did apparently handle a 10-mile demonstration run, carrying passengers at speeds of up to 9 mph, however sadly, nobody expressed a business curiosity within the automobile.
Who, then, was first?
That the very first automobile firm (as we’re defining it here, at least) was born within the United Kingdom looks like a secure bet; Englishman Thomas Savery patented the primary business steam engine, a crude gadget used to pump water, in 1698. Patents for steam wagons or steam carriages started emerging there within the early part of the 19th century, and a selection of operators had been operating surprisingly superior steam carriages on public roadways by the 1830s.
One promising contender is Summers and Ogle, a partnership shaped by William Alltoft Summers and Nathaniel Ogle to construct these steam carriages. In 1831, the pair bought an old iron foundry in Southampton, England, to go into manufacturing. These carriages were considerably profitable, with numerous documented routes in service throughout 1831 and 1832. Incredibly, their first contraption might handle speeds of 32 to 35 mph—that’s Model T territory, in the 1830s!
However, it looks like English inventor Goldsworthy Gurney ( , no recognized relation to Dan) beat them to the punch. In addition to work on stoves, lighting devices and the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, Gurney took an curiosity in steam propulsion and sought to popularize steam-powered street vehicles. And underneath the auspices of the Gurney Steam Carriage Company, established 1825, he set about to do exactly that—and virtually succeeded.
A scale model of considered one of Goldsworthy Gurney’s steam-powered carriages. Unlike earlier inventors, Gurney was capable of commercialize this early automotive expertise, at least for a time.Science & Society Picture LibraryGetty Images
Lyman Horace Weeks writes of Gurney in the fascinating Automobile Biographies (which you’ll have the ability to read on-line as a free e-book):
“In 1826 he constructed a coach about twenty toes long, which would accommodate six inside and fifteen exterior passengers, apart from the engineer. The driving wheels had been five toes diameter, and the main wheels three feet 9 inches diameter. Two propellers had been used, which could be put in motion when the carriage was climbing hills. Gurney’s patent boiler was used for supplying steam to the twelve horse energy engine. The complete weight of the carriage was a few ton and a half.
“In front of the coach was a capacious boot, while behind that which had the looks of a boot, was the case for the boiler and the furnace, from which it was calculated that no inconvenience can be experienced by the outside passenger, although in cold climate a certain diploma of heat may be obtained, if required.
“In descending a hill, there was a brake fastened on the hind wheel, to extend the friction; however independently of this, the information had the facility of lessening the pressure of the steam to any extent by means of the lever at his proper hand, which operated upon the throttle valve, and by which he might stop the action of the steam altogether and effect a counter vacuum within the cylinders. By this means additionally he regulated the speed of progress on the highway. There was one other lever by which he could stop the vehicle immediately and in a moment reverse the movement of the wheels.”
Save for the considerably odd-sounding “propellers”—deployable leg-like appendages supposed to boost traction when climbing hills, which had been later deemed pointless and discarded—this sounds so much like a primitive van. It has brakes, a reverse gear and even, if I’m studying that description correctly, heat for those cold-weather commutes. It even weighed about as a lot as a contemporary automobile, with a similar footprint.
Gurney improved upon the design to the point where he was able to sell autos to Charles Dance, a kind of pioneering automotive investor/transit visionary. Weeks writes:
“Gurney’s carriage so fully established its practicability, that in 1830, Sir Charles Dance contracted for several, and ran them successfully from London to Holyhead and from Birmingham to Bristol. In the following 12 months he ran over the turnpike road between Gloucester and Cheltenham for 4 months in succession, 4 times a day, without an accident or delay of consequence. The distance of nine miles was regularly covered in from forty-five to fifty-five minutes. Nearly three thousand individuals were carried, and practically 4 thousand miles traveled.”
All of this is able to point to Gurney being the primary individual to function a automotive firm, albeit one with Dance as its only recorded buyer.
So why haven’t we heard of this guy?
As for why you’ve never heard of Gurney and his magnificent steampunk creations: a fear of new expertise and/or a conspiracy perpetrated by railroads and horse-drawn carriage operators, apparently. That the basic public would be somewhat hesitant to embrace these smoking, steaming, clanking machines is somewhat understandable, nevertheless it looks like punitive toll street costs for mechanical carriages, set at many times what it price for a horse-drawn carriage or wagon to use the same roadway, is what ultimately made them uneconomical to operate.
An English cartoon relationship from around 1825 depicts steam carriages as dangerous—an obvious, and successful, try to sway public opinion against the rising know-how.Science & Society Picture LibraryGetty Images
Then, starting in 1861, Parliament imposed a sequence of highly restrictive Locomotive Acts, which heavily disincentivized road-going mechanical transportation; the Locomotive Act of 1865, for instance, restricted speeds on the U.K.’s roads to four mph within the nation, simply 2 mph within the town, and mandated that every car be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. This is especially ridiculous when you assume about that automobiles had been touring a quantity of occasions that pace on English roads over three a long time prior.
Though these acts had been later amended, after which repealed, they successfully slammed the brakes on automobile improvement within the U.K. for decades. Railroad operators and horse-breeders have been little doubt thrilled.
Were prohibitive restrictions not imposed, and had been Gurney and his contemporaries free to pursue their visions, we could be dealing with a radically different transportation landscape right now; it’s all speculation, but steam energy might need been better positioned to struggle with gasoline-fueled internal combustion, if just for a quick while longer.
In any case, this is a superb reminder of simply how long the dream of mechanical automobility has preoccupied inventors—and how usually, the challenges of technological development can pale compared to the resistance provided by entrenched interests and a slowly evolving established order.