Smithsonian Automobile Collection -- The Pioneers

The Pioneers

Four models of the Liberty Brush automobile lined up outside a Liberty Brush dealership.

The Pioneers

The automobile is one of the most important factors in our everyday life. For many persons it is a convenience and a means of recreation, but to many more it is an absolute necessity. Modern transportation is based in substantial part upon the services of the automobile, and a slight idea of what life would be like if the automobile suddenly ceased to exist can be recalled from the days of tire and gasoline rationing during World War II.

When we consider the number of people engaged in manufacturing, selling, operating, and maintaining passenger automobiles, trucks, and busses, and in incidental businesses such as those connected with oil-refinery products, accessories, insurance, and highway construction, it is apparent that our economic structure is most decidedly related to the automobile. Our living today is definitely geared to this form of conveyance, and its existence affords a livelihood to millions.

Few people, however, in a generation that has always known the automobile, realize how brief its history is. At the turn of the century the automobile was considered the work of madmen determined to upset the enterprises of the harness maker, the blacksmith, and the horse breeder; while even more recently it was looked upon merely as a plaything of the wealthy.

Only 40 or so years ago highways became seas of mud in rainy weather. Then the horse was still the master, extracting untold numbers of mired vehicles from muddy traps. But, with the continued lowering in cost of the automobile, bringing its purchase within the ability of more and more people, the demand increased for more and better roads and streets, resulting in the relatively excellent traffic arteries of modern times.

Today, because of fine roads, and the automobiles that travel upon them, it is possible to make in several hours trips which formerly took as many days. Workers are easily transported to and from their places of business, farmers carry goods to market with little effort, heavy construction material is swiftly delivered directly to the job, vacations are readily enjoyed, and emergencies are quickly met, all with a machine that two generations ago was in its infancy.

True, there were huge self-propelled road vehicles many generations earlier, but they were clumsy steam monsters which contributed little to the development of the light-weight, flexible, and more practical gasoline-engined vehicles that appeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century both here and abroad.

In addition, many unusual and less practical vehicles powered by sails, clockwork, pedals, treadmills, and various forms of human and animal power had been conceived, if not actually constructed. The majority of these probably were never built, but extant drawings of them remind us of the ingenuity of their designers. One of them was the jet-propelled steam vehicle said to have been suggested by Sir Isaac Newton toward the end of the seventeenth century.

Nicolas Joseph Cugnot

Print of Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's steam automobile

One of the first known self-propelled road vehicles was constructed in 1769 by the French military engineer Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. Capable of carrying four passengers, it could attain a speed of about 2 miles an hour with a steam supply lasting a little over 10 minutes. Although hardly practical, it proved that the idea of self-propulsion by steam could be developed and led to the construction in 1770 by Brezin, after Cugnot 's design, of another vehicle intended for the transportation of artillery. It can be seen today in the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers at Paris, where it has been carefully preserved. Supported on three wheels, the machine is powered by a steam engine comprising two vertical, single-acting cylinders attached to the single front wheel. The front wheel is steered, the engine and copper boiler turning with it. This self-propelled vehicle is one of the oldest known to exist today.

Road Locomotives in England

Among the many early steam-propelled conveyances constructed in England were those of William Murdock, Richard Trevithick, Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, Sir Charles Dance, Walter Hancock, William Church, and Squire and Maceroni. Including both small operable models and full-sized vehicles used to transport passengers and freight over the highways, they were built in the period from 1786 to 1838. Some had three wheels, while others had four or six, and some of Gurney's used mechanically operated legs for propulsion, with wheels for support.

By 1786 William Murdock had built a small 3-wheeled model, a copy of which is now in the Science Museum at South Kensington, and there is good evidence that he constructed other models. However, under pressure from his employers, Boulton and Watt, he ultimately abandoned his experiments.

Richard Trevithick's full-sized steamers operated on the roads of Camborne in Cornwall in 1801 and on the streets of London in 1803. They were antedated by a small 3-wheeled model built about 1797, also in the Science Museum.

During the years 1825 through 1829 Sir Goldsworthy Gurney constructed several steamers, some of which were conventional carriages pulled by steam-propelled tractors. Gurney's conveyances were taken over and improved upon by Dance, who, from February to June 1831, ran a regular service with them four times a day between Gloucester and Cheltenham, a distance of 9 miles. The speed, including stops, was a little over 10 miles an hour.

Print of Walter Hancock's Steam Carriage

Between 1827 and 1838 Walter Hancock built nine steam carriages of various types, all of which were mechanically successful. In 1832 he started a regular steam omnibus service between Paddington and London. One of the best of his carriages weighed about 7,000 pounds and carried 16 passengers. There were two vertical cylinders, 9 inches in diameter with 12-inch stroke, driving a crankshaft connected by chain to driving wheels 48 inches in diameter. Steam was supplied by a sheet-flue boiler 2 feet square and 3 feet high, placed over a grate which had a closed ashpit and a fan draft.

Print of Church's Steam Carriage

In 1832 Church's steam carriages ran between London and Birmingham, but they were subsequently given up because of the competition from the newly opened railroad. The steam carriages of Squire and Maceroni, built about 1833, regularly ran at an average speed of 14 miles an hour, while their maximum speed was 20.

By 1836 steam road carriages were practically abandoned in England because of the heavy tolls imposed on mechanically propelled vehicles on the highways. Also, the railroads were strong and successful competitors. Finally, an act of 1865 brought the road vehicles to an abrupt halt as it imposed on them a speed limit of 4 miles an hour in the open country and 2 miles an hour in the city. In addition, a man carrying a red flag was required to precede the vehicle. An amendment in 1878 removed the requirement that a flag be carried, and in 1896 the popularly called Emancipation Act eliminated this restriction and raised the speed limit, thus removing a major obstacle to the manufacture and use of the automobile in England. In 1903 the speed limit was raised to 20 miles an hour.