Smithsonian Automobile Collection -- An American Industry is Born

An American Industry is Born

This photo shows the Copeland steam-propelled tricycle in front of the Carriage Porch at the north entrance Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle) on the Mall.

Selden Automobile Patent Model, 1879

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In America, George B. Selden applied in 1879 for a patent for a motor vehicle with an internal-combustion engine. The patent was not issued until 1895, after which it had a short-lived but great effect upon a young industry. The model submitted with the application for patent is in the National Museum collection.

Charles E. and J. Frank Duryea, whose work is represented in the National Museum by their 1-cylinder vehicle of 1893-94, were notable among the American pioneers. A 2-cylinder, pneumatic-tired Duryea vehicle was driven by J. Frank Duryea to victory in the Chicago Times-Herald automobile race from Chicago to Evanston and back on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895. (This car was unfortunately destroyed through a workman's misunderstanding many years ago.)

Duryea Automobile, 1893-1894

Charles E. Duryea seated in the Duryea car that won the Chicago Times-Herald race on November 28, 1895.

In 1896 the Duryea Motor Wagon Co. constructed 13 identical automobiles, the first instance of mass automobile production in America. The sale of the first of these cars constituted the first sale of a gasoline-powered automobile in America. Of these 13 cars, only one remains; it is in the private collection of George H. Waterman, at East Greenwich, R. I. A slightly different model, completed in October 1896, was taken to England and entered in the London-to-Brighton run on November 14 of that year. It was the first car to arrive at Brighton, for which performance a gold medal was awarded. This medal is in the National Museum.

Elwood Haynes sitting in 1894 experimental gasoline automobile, the "Pioneer".

Elwood Haynes, metallurgical engineer, worked for several years on the idea of a gasoline-powered vehicle after deciding that such a machine would be far more practical than one propelled by steam or electricity. On July 4, 1894, his first car made a successful trial trip

Balzer driving his automobile, 1894

Stephen M. Balzer is another pioneer. He is represented in the National Museum by a small rotary-engined road carriage built in 1894. This is the only one of those constructed by Balzer known to exist, although other slightly different models appear in the drawings and specifications of several patents obtained by him in the same period.

In Detroit, Mich., Charles Brady King planned a motor tricycle in 1893, and in that and the following year planned several 4-wheeled vehicles to be powered with Sintz, 1-cylinder, 2-cycle, gasoline engines. They were never built, but in 1895 he started the construction of an automobile powered with a 4-cylinder, 4-cycle, gasoline engine of his own design. This vehicle was successfully put in operation on March 6, 1896, and is said to have been the first automobile ever driven on the streets of Detroit. The machine was dismantled shortly afterward. Several of the valves of this engine were subsequently given by King to Henry Ford and were used in the engine of Ford's first vehicle.

Charles Brady King demonstrates his car in Detroit on March 7, 1896

Henry Ford in his Quadricycle Detroit, Michigan, 1896

Henry Ford, machinist and one-time farmer, had experimented with gasoline engines for a number of years before ultimately constructing in his little workshop on Bagley Avenue in Detroit a 4-wheeled, tiller-steered vehicle powered with his own 2-cylinder, 4-cycle, horizontal, gasoline engine. This car, with Charles B. King as a passenger, had its first test run on the streets of Detroit on June 4, 1896. It is now on exhibition in the Henry Ford Museum. Several successful racing cars were later built by Ford, and in 1903 the first model-A Ford automobile, a 2-cylinder machine, was offered to the public by the then newly formed Ford Motor Company.

In Lansing, Mich., in 1886, Ransom E. Olds had constructed a 3-wheeled, steam-propelled, passenger vehicle. This was subsequently rebuilt into a 4-wheeled steamer, and in 1893 it was shipped to a purchaser in Bombay, India. Olds' first gasoline-engined automobile was not built until late in 1895 or early in 1896, and unfortunately was later destroyed by fire. In 1897 four similar gasoline automobiles are said to have been built, one of which is now in the National Museum collection. It is the oldest Olds vehicle surviving.

A few other makes and types of automobiles were also in evidence in this country before the close of the century, and untold numbers of experimental machines were built by mechanically minded men in the next few years. Many developed into successful enterprises, some doing business even today. Not to be overlooked were the autobiles powered with steam engines and electric motors. Each of these for a time appeared likely to become the ultimate type of power plant for the passenger automobile, but in the end gasoline won out.

In 1903 the first transcontinental automobile trip was completed when H. Nelson Jackson drove his 2-cylinder Winton from San Francisco, Calif., to New York City in 63 days. This car is now in the National Museum. One month after the successful Winton trip a 1-cylinder Packard driven by Tom Fetch completed the transcontinental journey between the same two cities in a few days less time. Shortly afterward, Whitman and Hammond made the trip in a 1-cylinder Oldsmobile, about 10 weeks being required. It had become evident that long trips could be made with an automobile.

H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker in their Winton

As time passed and manufacturing methods were improved, the automobile proved more and more reliable. Service facilities were more frequently to be found, and the brawny hand of the blacksmith was laid less often on the machine in need of repairs. Garages with mechanics and replacement parts appeared, and women took up the art of driving as the risk of breakdowns became less.

Interchangeability of parts, upon which ease of replacement and assembly-line manufacture both depend, was dramatically demonstrated when the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain in 1908 presented the Sir Thomas Dewar trophy to Cadillac for the most meritorious performance in any trial held by the Club during the year. The trial consisted of completely disassembling three new 1-cylinder Cadillac automobiles, mixing all the parts, and reassembling the vehicles from parts picked at random. After the assembly the engines were started easily, and test runs of 500 miles were made.

This trial showed that the manufacture of parts to tolerances permitting assembling without slow, skilled hand fitting was a workable American practice. Assembly-line manufacture based on this practice has made possible the high production records of the automobile industry in peace and war since 1908.

Since November 28, 1895, the date of America's first automobile race, many speed contests and reliability trials have been held in this country, and both types of events have had a telling effect on the automobile. These contests, in which machines vied with one another, led the manufacturers and engineers to develop increasingly better tires, alloys, lubricants, and other components of the automobile, resulting in the long-lived and serviceable vehicle we know today.