History of the Internal-Combustion Engine


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Nicholas Cugnot of France built a three-wheeled steam-powered artillery carriage in 1769.  This was probably the first automotive vehicle.

The first person to experiment with an internal-combustion engine was the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens, about 1680. But no effective gasoline-powered engine was developed until 1859, when the French engineer J. J. Étienne Lenoir built a double-acting, spark-ignition engine that could be operated continuously. In 1862 Alphonse Beau de Rochas, a French scientist, patented but did not build a four-stroke engine; sixteen years later, when Nikolaus A. Otto built a successful four-stroke engine, it became known as the Otto cycle. The first successful two-stroke engine was completed in the same year by Sir Dougald Clerk, in a form which (simplified somewhat by Joseph Day in 1891) remains in use today. George Brayton, an American engineer, had developed a two-stroke kerosene engine in 1873, but it was too large and too slow to be commercially successful.

Steam-driven automobiles were turned out by some 100 manufacturers during the late 1890s and early 1900s. The most famous of these steam-car makers were Francis E. and Freelan O. Stanley of the United States--twin brothers who developed an automobile called the "Stanley Steamer" in 1897. Steam cars burned kerosene to heat water in a tank that was part of the car. The pressure of escaping steam activated the car's driving mechanism. Perhaps the chief asset of the steam car was its simple power mechanism. It did not have an ignition system or a clutch. No transmission was needed because its engine was connected directly to the wheel axle.

The steam car had some disadvantages, however. Most of these centered in the water tank, also called the "boiler." It took too long for the water to heat up. In addition there was a constant fear of explosion, though this proved groundless. The popularity of the steam car declined at about the time of World War I. Steam car production came to an end in 1929.

By the early 1900s many inventors in the United States were developing new models. In 1893 J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea produced the first successful gasoline-powered automobile in the United States. They began commercial production of the Duryea car in 1896--the same year in which Henry Ford operated his first successful automobile in Detroit.

The first automobile salesroom was opened in New York City in 1899 by Percy Owen. In 1900 the first automobile show was held--also in New York City.

Mass production in the automobile industry was introduced in 1901 by Ransom E. Olds, a pioneer experimenter since 1886. His company manufactured more than 400 of the now historic curved-dash Oldsmobiles in that first year. Each car sold for only $650. Henry M. Leland and Henry Ford further developed mass production methods during the early 1900s.

The Ford Motor Company was organized in 1903, the General Motors Corporation in 1908, and the Chrysler Corporation in 1925. The first Model T Ford was made in 1908. More than 15 million were to be sold in the next 20 years. The Model T, nicknamed the "flivver" and the "tin lizzie," was probably more responsible for the development of large-scale motoring than was any other car in automotive history. It also spurred the building of roads and streets in the United States.

Many men contributed to the development of the automobile industry in the United States. These included Elmer and Edgar Apperson, who built a car conceived by Elwood G. Haynes in 1894; the Studebaker brothers, manufacturers of horse-drawn vehicles, who began making motorcars in 1902; David Dunbar Buick, who built his first car in 1903; Frederic J. Fisher, founder of the Fisher Body Company (1908), which became a part of General Motors in 1926; Louis Chevrolet, the Swiss-American who founded the Chevrolet Motor Company in 1911; Charles F. Kettering, who invented the self-starter in 1911; John and Horace Dodge, the bicycle parts producers who founded the Dodge Motor Company in 1914; and Charles W. Nash, an executive with other automobile manufacturers until he founded the Nash Motors Company in 1916.

This page last updated April 28, 2001.  Send us your feedback, and come join the Imperial Mailing List - Online Car Club