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Motoring Madness PUBLIC ACCESS

The History and Development of America's Favorite Mechanical Object: The Automobile.

[+] Author Notes

Richard A. Lentinello, a lifelong hands-on automotive enthusiast, is the executive editor of Hemmings Motor News and the company's associated publications in Bennington, Vt.

Mechanical Engineering 122(11), 86-92 (Nov 01, 2000) (7 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2000-NOV-3

This article highlights that the today automobile remains at the forefront of noteworthy technical achievements. Some of the more recent ideas that have emerged as a result of mankind’s quest for safety, efficiency and performance are the air bag, computer-controlled electronic fuel injection, run-flat tires and compact global positioning systems. Like most remarkable objects that are incessantly redesigned and refined until the end result meets, and often exceeds, the goal of the initial concept, the blueprint for the automobile actually started out as one man’s crusade—in this case, to produce a self-propelled, steam-powered carriage. Due to ever-increasing emission standards, the automobile is forever linked to the catalytic converter, oxygen sensor, air pump, and the electronic control module. The control module is designed to adjust the engine’s ignition tinting thousands of times every second to ensure that the smallest amount of hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere. The automobile continues to clean up its own act and inspire the development of increasingly sophisticated technology, which underpins the prosperity of North America.

Safety glass, rubber tires, carburetors, pistons, and shocks. These are just a few of the thousands of mechanical innovations that came about due to the creation of the automobile.

With a production period that has already spanned more than 100 years, the automobile remains today at the forefront of noteworthy technical achievements. Some of the more recent ideas that have emerged as a result of mankind's quest for safety, efficiency, and performance are the air bag. computer-controlled electronic fuel injection, run-flat tires, and compact global positioning systems.

Like most remarkable objects that are incessantly redesigned and refined until the end result meets, and often exceeds, the goal of the initial concept, the blueprint for the automobile actually started out as one man's crusade—in this case, to produce a self-propelled, steam-powered carriage. That man was Oliver Evans. The year: 1772.

With the onset of the Revolutionary War looming in the not- too-distant future, a young 20-something Evans focused all his creative energies on the development of a steam engine that would be used to power flour mills and wagons. Unfortunately for Evans, because the United States Patent Office was still a few years away from being established, he never was able to secure the proper protection for his steam-powered inventions, despite the state of Maryland’s approval for patent protection in 1787.

Then in 1791, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson signed the document giving Massachusetts’ Nathan Read, a Harvard graduate, the patent for a high- pressure boiler. Read had drafted plans in 1790 for a steam-powered land carriage using two such engines, with each one driving a wheel.

Not to be outdone, Oliver Evans then designed a reciprocating steam engine and a rotary engine. Although the rotary engine was never patented, Evans did receive a patent for his ingenious steam engine, which used 100 pounds of pressure per square inch. This use of high-pressure steam was unheard of, and was even condemned by the noted British inventor James Watt.

Although documentation exists that proves several steam-powered land carriages had been built and driven prior to 1850 in the United States, it wasn't until 1851, with the official launch of the American Steam Carriage Co. in New York City, that the first serious steam-driven carriage manufacturer was founded.

Inventor William James is credited with the creation of several steam-powered wagons, one of which was powered by a two-cylinder reciprocating engine and driven on the streets of New York back in 1829. Later on, in 1851, the experienced steam engineer, John Kenrick Fisher, joined the American Steam Carriage Co. and duly built a carriage that had a top speed of 15 mph.

Steam wasn’t the only means of motivation being tried. Besides his other experiments, Samuel F.B. Morse, who invented the electric telegraph in 1832, was tinkering with the concept of an electric motor. But the honor of inventing and patenting the first electric motor went to Vermont native Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith (see “The Blacksmith’s Motor,” July 1999). Davenport’s motor design instituted the first configuration of a commutator, whose concept is used in electric motors today.

As a result of Davenport’s experimentation with the electric motor, Moses G. Farmer of Massachusetts bolted an electric motor onto a carriage in 1847 and became the first unofficial electric car builder. Farmer’s electric carriage was powered by 48 Grove cells and could carry two people.

Shortly thereafter, Washington, D.C., professor Charles G. Page was able to transport 12 people along the W&B railroad at 19 mph by using a more powerful 16-horsepower motor driven by 100 Grove cells. Page went on to invent the Page ignition coil.

While many inventive minds continued to perfect their own versions of steam engines and electric motors throughout the 1800s, an engine of a totally different design was being developed at the same time. The theory behind this engine is the foundation of the one powering the car that transported you to work and back today. It is the internal combustion engine.

Starting in 1835, Alfred Drake of Philadelphia developed an internal combustion engine over a 20-year period. His engines had a primitive ignition system in the form of heated tubes that were used to ignite the fuel mixture. Several patents were issued as a result of Drake’s ingenious ignition.

The most effective internal combustion engine design until this point was that of Stuart Perry. Patented in 1844 and 1846, Perry’s engine was engineered and built in New York City. Very much like contemporary internal combustion engines, this two-cycle engine was of a vertical design and had a cylinder head with separate inlet and exhaust valves. Other traditional features included a piston and cylinder, camshaft, water pump, throttle valve, igniter, and a lubrication system.

Many experts are in agreement that Charles E. Duryea built America’s first gasoline-powered car in the 1890s. Others cite Elwood Haynes’ car of approximately the same time.

The man who deserves perhaps the greatest amount of credit for perfecting the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine—and thus forging the way for the mass production of gasoline-powered automobiles—is German engineer Nicolaus August Otto. It was Otto’s four-cycle design that transformed the internal combustion engine into a viable means of motivation for the masses. Patented on Aug. 14, 1877, the principle behind this engine is what is commonly referred to as the Otto cycle.

Since the early 1800s, as automobiles progressed from experimental backyard carriages to modern, high-tech computer-controlled machines capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph, they have brought together similar creative minds, individuals with vision and the desire to make things happen. Because of these talented, goal-oriented designers, engineers, craftsmen, and industrialists, the world has progressed farther during the last century than in any century before. And the simple reason is the invention of the automobile.

When Henry Ford perfected the idea of mass-producing automobiles on a production line, he created the need for specialized tools and heavy-duty machinery. As a result, machine tool manufacturers developed more efficient methods of manufacturing parts. They created specialized tools, thus fostering a need for better, and different, raw materials.

Consequently, the steelmakers, because they too had to meet the fast-growing demands placed upon society by the automobile, developed better, more modern manufacturing processes, not to mention more mills.

The building of new mills created thousands of jobs for construction workers, electricians, and plant workers. The need for new plants created opportunities for more engineers, hence the proliferation of engineering schools throughout the country and the creation of new jobs for teachers.

Authors were in great demand as well, to write much-needed books, repair manuals, dealer brochures, and owner’s handbooks. This resulted in growth for the publishing industry in order to meet the demand for the new print products, and, naturally, increased business for paper mills, printing presses, and even ink producers.

Most importantly, to distribute these products in the most efficient manner possible, the growth of the commercial transportation industry soon paralleled that of the automobile, resulting in specialized boxcars, hoppers, flat cars, and rail cars, not to mention more powerful diesel locomotives, to transport cars and the raw materials required for automobile manufacturing.

Where trains couldn’t travel, trucks did. Manufacturers such as Day-Elder, Divco, Mack, International, and Sterling are just some of the better known truck builders that were founded to produce distinct types of trucks designed to meet specific transportation needs generated by automobile manufacturers, and by society in general.

As the automobile progressed through the early part of the 20th century, new car manufacturers sprouted like mushrooms. To keep ahead of the competition, manufacturers introduced innovations on their automobiles, hoping to capture the fancy of car- buyers everywhere. These innovations made cars more reliable and durable, safer, faster, more efficient, and far more comfortable with each passing year.

From small-displacement, low-compression, four- cylinder engines of the early 1920s to the massive V-12s of the ’30s to the big- block torque monsters among the late-’60s muscle cars, man’s insatiable desire for more horsepower has led to the development of numerous mechanical marvels, many of which have been incorporated into the car parked inside your garage.

There has been an abundant amount of componentry specifically designed to accommodate the requirements of the internal combustion engine.

These parts include the engine block, crankshaft, piston, connecting rod, camshaft, lifter, rocker arm, pushrod, valve, carburetor, intake manifold, exhaust manifold, generator/alternator, voltage regulator, water pump, oil pump, fuel pump, starter, distributor, coil, ignition wires, spark plug, flywheel, and, of course, bearings, gaskets, filters, belts, hoses, and assorted fasteners. These are the same components used in the engines that power airplanes, boats, trucks, trains, lawn mowers, and chain saws, as well as in industrial engines that are needed in power generating plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, bridges, and dams, all of which affect our lives every day.

The transmission is another great innovation. From it developed the clutch and pressure plate, torque converter, valve body, hypoid gears, and synchromesh. Far removed from yesteryear’s basic two-speeds, today’s transmission has as many as six forward gears, which contribute to longer engine life and reduced gas consumption.

With the advent of additional horsepower through the years, brakes played an even more important role than ever before. Thanks to Jaguar’s pioneering use of disc brakes on the D-Type race car during the mid-1950s, cars are safer to drive than ever before.

This same disc brake innovation has been adopted for use on motorcycles, buses, trucks, and numerous recreational vehicles. Although the design was first developed for the aviation industry, nearly all of today’s cars incorporate some form of anti-lock brakes. Mass production of the automobile has resulted in a safer and more effective system, with the added bonus of reduced highway fatalities.

The one-cylinder Duryea buggy, built in 1892, is thought to be the first gas-powered automobile built in the United States.

Grahic Jump LocationThe one-cylinder Duryea buggy, built in 1892, is thought to be the first gas-powered automobile built in the United States.

Other less obvious developments that are directly attributed to the automobile are ball joints, tie rods, shock absorbers, coil springs, fiberglass leaf springs, rack- and-pinion steering, universal joints, miniature fuses, specific electrical connections, lightweight alloy wheels, positraction differentials, laminated safety glass, electronic fuel injection, on-board diagnostic systems, and different types of instrumentation, including, of course, the speedometer and tachometer.

We have the automobile to thank for the success of the pneumatic tire. Pioneers like Harvey Firestone developed inflatable tires to make cars ride smoother, which helped increase automobile sales.

If it weren’t for the founders of Binney & Smith Inc., the maker of Crayola crayons, tires would still be white. Experienced in the development of pigments for the manufacture of crayons and chalk, Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith added a special carbon pigment blend to a rubber mixture and thus was born the first black tire. But the effect was not entirely a matter of appearance: The addition of the black pigment made the tires about five times stronger.

Due to ever-increasing emission standards, the automobile is forever linked to the catalytic converter, oxygen sensor, air pump, and the electronic control module. The control module is designed to adjust the engine’s ignition timing thousands of times every second to ensure that the smallest amount of hydrocarbons are released into the atmosphere.

The automobile continues to clean up its own act and inspire the development of increasingly sophisticated technology, which underpins the prosperity of North America.

Thanks to Otto’s four-cycle internal combustion engine and the contributions of pioneers before and after him, the motor vehicle has transformed society.

No matter how distant a town or farm, for instance, if there is a road, the place is no longer isolated. Trucks carry food, medicine, and goods of all kinds across continents. Ambulances rush the desperately sick to the sites of the best care. What’s more, the auto has brought unprecedented freedom of movement to individual members of society, and with that freedom comes another—the enlarged freedom of choice within an expanded horizon.

Copyright © 2000 by ASME
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