Smithsonian Automobile Collection -- First Attempts in America

First Attempts in America

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.

First Attempts in America

In America, Nathan Read, well-known inventor of Salem, Massachusetts, obtained a patent in 1790 for a 4-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle, and built a small operable model. It was powered with a 2-cylinder steam engine. Because of lack of public interest Read's vehicle did not progress beyond the model stage.

The earliest known passenger-carrying, self-propelled land vehicle in the United States was that of Oliver Evans, American inventor and engineer. Although he had planned a "steam wagon" in 1801, it was not until July 1805 that Evans set his "Orukter Amphibolos," or "Amphibious Digger," around the Center Square waterworks at Philadelphia. Built as a steam-operated dredge to be used in the harbor, the 40,000-pound craft was mounted upon axles and wheels and propelled by its engine from its place of building to the water's edge, earning the present-day title of "America's first automobile."

Oliver Evans' 'Orukter Amphibolos,' 1805. Photograph of a model by Greville Bathe.

It is stated that the Johnson brothers, proprietors of an engineering establishment in Philadelphia, built a 4-wheeled, 1-cylinder, steam-propelled wagon in 1828. If authenticated, this vehicle would be America's first full-sized automobile built for the specific purpose of operating on the highway.

It is further stated that William James, stove manufacturer of New York City, built a full-sized steam carriage in 1830. Supported on three wheels, it was steered by the single front one, while a 2-cylinder horizontal engine drove the rear two. No relic of the machines constructed by Read, Evans, the Johnsons, and James is known to exist.

During the middle part of the nineteenth century steam-operated traction engines were built both in America and abroad. In a sense they could be called automobiles, as they moved under their own power, could be steered, and were capable of carrying passengers. They were, however, designed to perform work in the fields, and were usually equipped with broad, cleated wheels, or tracks, and so are not properly a part of the history of the automobile. Their modern counterparts are the often seen Diesel-powered tractors.

Richard Dudgeon

Print of Richard Dudgeon's steam vehicle, as it appeared in an 1870 catalog

Richard Dudgeon's steam vehicle of about 1867, as it appeared in an 1870 catalog of the Dudgeon Co., manufacturers of machinery. In this catalog Dudgeon reports that he had made two steam carriages, the first 17 years and the other only 4 years prior to the date of the catalog (the first was destroyed in the fire that consumed New York's Crystal Palace in 1 858). He adds that the latter, of which this is the catalog illustration, was in perfect order after having run hundreds of miles on almost every kind of road. Dudgeon states, nevertheless, that after 17 years of effort, and despite his conviction of the utility of such a machine, he had learned that it was not fashionable, or that people were not ready for it.

In New York, in about 1867, Richard Dudgeon built a steam-powered carriage capable of carrying 10 persons. It ran on four solid wooden wheels, the two rear ones connected to steam cylinders mounted at the front of the horizontal boiler, on each side. Veritably a "road locomotive," it differed from a rail locomotive in having its wheels un-flanged and its front axle pivoted for steering.

This vehicle is probably the earliest surviving self-propelled road conveyance in America. Still in good operable condition, it is the oldest specimen in the private collection of George H. Waterman and Kirkland Gibson at East Greenwich, R. I. It is currently to be seen at the Antique Auto Museum of Massachusetts, at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, Mass., where it is on loan to the Veteran Motor Car Club of America. An earlier Dudgeon steamer was built in about 1853, but was destroyed in the Crystal Palace fire in New York City in 1858.

Sylvester H. Roper

At least one early inventor, Sylvester H. Roper, of Roxbury, Mass., constructed a steam-operated velocipede, and for some years his machine appeared at fairs and circuses in New England, as a handbill of about 75 years ago reveals. Resembling a Hanlon-type velocipede, with wooden wheels and iron-band tires, the machine was propelled through the rear wheel, the axle of which was fitted with cranks connected to two small steam cylinders, one on each side of the rear section of the frame. This velocipede, built in about 1869, is now in the collection of the National Museum.

Sylvester Roper and his steam carriage of pre-1870, believed to have been destroyed.

Roper Handbill Advertising his automobiles

Over a period of years, Roper also constructed several large steam-propelled wagons, one of which is fortunately preserved in the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, Mich. This machine was at one time exhibited with the velocipede. It has been erroneously referred to as an Austin steamer because of the fact that years ago it was for a while exhibited by a "Professor" W. W. Austin. Its date of construction is not known.

Roper unfortunately met his death on June 1, 1896, while operating his most recent steam vehicle, another two-wheeler, on the Charles River bicycle track at Cambridge, Mass. This machine is today exhibited at "Horn's Cars of Yesterday," a museum at Sarasota, Florida.

Lucius D. Copeland

In 1883 or 1884 Lucius D. Copeland equipped a Star bicycle with a small 1-cylinder steam engine and a boiler, and successfully operated the machine. Two or three years later a tricycle was similarly equipped for Copeland by the Northrop Manufacturing Co., of Camden, N. J. Articles on these machines appeared in many engineering magazines of that time, and Sandford Northrop 's associates issued a number of advertising brochures, one of which is reproduced in figure 10, publicizing the formation of their Moto-Cycle Manufacturing Co., but the venture proceeded no further and the fate of many another pioneer attempt to produce a commercially successful self-propelled road vehicle in America. Today, the only known relics of these Copeland machines are the boiler and engine of the Star bicycle, prized possessions of the Arizona Museum at Phoenix.

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.

Copeland and his Steam Bicycle, 1894

From Steam to Gasoline

In France several men constructed steam automobiles of fairly advanced design, chief among them being Amedee Bollee, Albert de Dion, and Leon Serpollet. Bollee's first machine, completed in 1873, was followed by improved models of various sizes built by his son as well as himself. All were successful, and some of them attained considerable speed over the roads. Some of his steamers are to be seen today at the Conservatoire at Paris, and at the Musee de la Voiture at Compiegne.

Vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines came into the picture with the construction, about 1863, by Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir of a vehicle employing a 1-cylinder engine of the type patented by him in 1860. Lenoir, a French citizen born in Belgium, wrote that the vehicle was clumsy, was powered with a 1 V2-horsepower motor making 100 revolutions per minute, yet was driven in an hour and a half to Joinville-le-Pont, some 6 miles from the starting point.

Siegfried Marcus' gasoline-powered vehicle of 1888, from the Technisches Museum Wien

Shortly afterward, in 1864, Siegfried Marcus, of Vienna, built a vehicle with a vertical, 1-cylinder, modified-Lenoir gas engine, also using electric ignition, and a carburetor with liquid fuel. This 4-wheeled vehicle is said to have run satisfactorily. It is, unfortunately, no longer in existence. Marcus' second automobile was dated to 1875 (now believed to have been built 1888) and is preserved at the Technisches Museum fur Industrie und Gewerbe in Vienna. It is powered with a horizontal, 1-cylinder, 4-cycle, 3/4-horsepower, internal-combustion engine using liquid fuel and electric ignition. Seating four passengers on two crosswise seats, it is supported on four wooden-spoked wheels and is guided by means of a steering wheel. It is reported to have been operated on the streets of Vienna in the spring of 1950, on its 75th anniversary.

Further advancement with gasoline-powered vehicles came in 1885 with the simultaneous, though independent, construction of a 2-wheeled machine by Gottlieb Daimler and a 3-wheeled machine by Karl Benz, both in Germany. The Daimler motorcycle was powered with a 1-cylinder, 4-cycle engine, and was the first automotive vehicle produced by the subsequently world-famous Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, makers of the renowned Mercedes and, later, of the Mercedes-Benz automobiles. Daimler was aided through the years by his friend Wilhelm Maybach.