The Invention of the Modern Automobile


“The way to make automobiles, is to make one automobile just like another automobile [1].”  With this statement, Henry Ford had invented the modern automobile.  Many people may question this idea, as they know self propelled vehicles were in existence long before the days of Ford.  In fact, these people would undoubtedly be correct; the idea of a self propelled vehicle and its actual realization had been present for at least one hundred years before Ford ever made one.  However, by considering the definition of invention, the idea of the modern automobile and then briefly tracing the history of the self propelled vehicle, it will become increasingly clear how Henry Ford had invented this dominant form of land transportation.

Before any evidence can be introduced in support of the topic at hand, the definition of invention must be established.  Legally, an invention is a new, useful, and non-obvious process, machine, or product.  Maurice Fabre, author of A History of Land Transportation (1963), offered an interesting take on the automobile and its inventor.  “Who, for that matter, can say who invented the automobile?  Was it Cugnot with his lumbering “fardier” of 1769?  Was it Trevithick with his steam carriage of 1801, or the Bollees with their steam car of 1813?  Or Benz or Daimler with their first successful internal combustion gasoline engine cars of 1886?  It depends what you mean by an automobile [2].”  In the year 2001, what do we consider the automobile to be?  I invite the reader to take a minute to look out the window.  I see a street lined with cars.  Many of these cars possess similar shapes and sizes.  In fact, some of them are the same make and model, only different colors.  What does this tell us about the modern automobile?  The modern automobile is not a single vehicle; it is a collection of millions of cars designed for utilization by a mass market.  In fact, we could argue that the modern automobile is a giant technological system that entails a way of life.  Entire economies depend on this automobile.  Engineers design the components, machinists manufacture the components, assemblers assemble the components into complete systems, truck drivers deliver the assembled product, and salesmen sell the product to the masses.  This brief description does not even account for the office workers who handle logistics and maintain financial accounts, or the separate companies that mine raw materials or design and manufacture the needed machine tools.  What would the economy of the United States be like without the modern automobile?  Obviously, the modern automobile and the self propelled vehicle are not necessarily the same. 

Roger Bacon, an English philosopher, and Leonardo da Vinci both developed the idea of a self propelled vehicle as early as the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, but it was not until the late 1700’s that their ideas were actually realized [3].  It was in 1769 that James Watt improved the steam engine by making it self-condensing (condensing steam back to water in a separate cylinder) and double acting (producing power from both piston strokes) [4].  Sparked by Watt’s improvements, Nicholas Cugnot, a French artillery captain, used a steam engine to propel a carriage in the same year.  The vehicle, designed to transport heavy cannons, was called the “fardier” [5].  This and other early attempts to make a vehicle powered by a steam engine were relatively unsuccessful though.  The vehicles were large, slow, and less efficient than horses.  For this reason, and the fact that the need for a road vehicle was not yet realized, the developers of these early steam vehicles could not find the financial backing needed for improvement.  Because railroads and waterways provided an efficient transportation alternative, no incentive to develop road vehicles existed.  In fact, in England in 1836, the Road Locomotive Act expressed this sentiment.  It taxed all road vehicles, enforced a 4-mph speed limit, and required all road vehicles to be preceded by a man waving a red flag.  The law was repealed in 1896, but by this time it had already impeded the English engineers for 60 years [6].  Throughout the 1800’s, the steam-powered vehicle was continually improved, but by the end of the century, it was evident that the steam engine would not be able to compete with gasoline and the internal combustion engine.  The steam engine was extremely heavy, it required the vehicle to carry a significant amount of coal or else restock regularly, it required continual addition of water to take the place of that which escaped in the form of steam, it required enough time for the water to boil, and in general it was thermally inefficient [7].

Other innovative individuals of the mid to late 1800’s attempted to power a road vehicle using electricity.  In 1873, the United States developed cable cars which received electrical power from the cable with which they were continually in contact and in 1887, the United States developed the electric streetcar or trolley system which received electrical power from the rails on which they traveled.  These systems facilitated mass transportation within the cities where cables and rails could be run, but they still did not provide an efficient means for an individual to travel in a rural area.  In 1859, Gaston Plante first used a series of batteries in a self propelled road vehicle in France.  As batteries improved, others followed in his footsteps, but like steam power, electrical power would eventually become inefficient compared to gasoline and the internal combustion engine.  The numerous batteries required to generate the needed power made the vehicles expensive and heavy.  Also, the batteries needed recharged often and stations capable of recharging the batteries were not widely available [8].

Originating in France in the 1860’s, the popularity of the bicycle generated the need to develop a more efficient self-propelled road vehicle along with better, smoother roadways.    With its increasing popularity, people realized that individualized, long distance travel, either for business or pleasure, provided a great luxury, especially in the United States where the population density was low.  Citizens and governments alike began to demand improvements to the roads.  For example, by the 1890’s, the United States had made road improvement a key political issue.  Eventually, contributors to the automobile industry would incorporate developments of the bicycle industry such as steel tube framing, ball bearings, chain drives, differential gearing, pneumatic tires, machine tools, sheet metal stamping, and electrical resistance welding [9].

As has already been alluded to, the answer to a more efficient self propelled road vehicle lay with gasoline and the internal combustion engine.  Unlike battery power, gasoline could be obtained easily whenever and wherever it was needed.  In 1860, in France, Etienne Lenoir developed a two-cycle engine utilizing an electrical spark generated by a battery and coil to ignite an air-fuel mixture.  In 1876, the German, Doctor Nicolaus Otto, improved the efficiency of the internal combustion engine by compressing the air-fuel mixture in a cylinder before igniting it.  Along with this, he developed the four-cycle internal combustion engine.  These cycles included intake of the air-fuel mixture, compression of the mixture, power resulting from ignition and expansion of the mixture, and exhaust of the remaining gases [10].  However, these engines were still too heavy to be of any significant value to a road vehicle.  By 1885, two of Otto’s assistants, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, along with another German, Carl Benz, had separately developed road vehicles with internal combustion engines capable of efficiently powering the vehicles [11].  A technical engineering education, along with years of practical experience allowed these three men to contribute so heavily.  For example, Daimler received his engineering education at the Polytechnic School of Stuttgart before working two years at the Karlsruhe Machine Works, and Benz spent four years at the Technical High School in Karlsruhe before also working briefly at the Karlsruhe Machine Works [12].   In 1890, though, Daimler sold his patent to two Frenchmen, Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor [13].  It was Panhard and Levassor who incorporated and arranged many of the features commonly utilized in cars today [14].  Like the Germans, these Frenchmen had received an engineering education.  In fact, Panhard and Levassor had been classmates at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, a prestigious Paris engineering college [15].  On the other hand, Benz kept his patent, manufactured the same vehicle year after year, and soon it became technologically out of date [16].

By 1900, all of the essential features of the new road vehicle were in place.   A clutch allowed the engine to run while the vehicle remained stationary, a gearbox allowed the engine to adjust to various road conditions, and a mechanical link between the gearbox and the wheels transmitted the necessary power.  Today, we recognize this gearbox as the transmission and the mechanical link as a drive shaft with universal joints (for a rear wheel drive automobile).  By the 1950’s, braking systems evolved from wooden shoes being pressed against rubber tires to a belt tightening on a drum to shoes being pressed against a drum via a foot pedal to pads gripping a rotating disc via a foot pedal.  By the 1930’s, wooden wheels with steel tires evolved to solid rubber tires and then to pneumatic rubber tires.  The body and frame became separate entities with springs being placed between the frame and the wheels in order to prevent the axles from breaking on rough roads.  The engine was placed in front underneath the hood and a radiator was used to help cool water that was circulated through the engine.  Differential gears caused the wheels on one side of the vehicle to rotate faster than those on the other side did when making a turn.  With a few other additional improvements and some time to prove itself, the gasoline-powered vehicle had demonstrated the reliability of a family car by 1908 [17].



It was at this point in time that Henry Ford invented the modern automobile.  Remember that an invention is defined to be a new, useful, and non-obvious process, machine, or product.  In the United States, especially in the Midwest, the population density was low.  Individuals needed a way to travel long distances for both business and recreation purposes.  The middle class stood to gain the most from this individualized transportation, yet in the early 1900’s vehicles were considered luxury items, as they were only affordable to the upper class.  Therefore, the challenge at hand was to make the gas-powered vehicle affordable to the middle class family.  As Ford remarked, the world needed “a car for the great multitude.”  In Europe, low per capita incomes, high gasoline prices, and high horsepower taxes kept the European manufacturers from realizing the benefits of this idea.  Therefore, they continued to concentrate on the luxury market [18].

Ford was not the first person to tackle this problem, though.  In 1907, Alanson Brush attempted to mass-produce vehicles affordable to the common family.  However, the vehicle he turned out was formed primarily of wood, and was not successful for obvious reasons [19].  Ford recognized the need for a balance between quality and mass-production.  He believed in strong, lightweight, fast, gasoline powered cars sold at low prices, generating small individual profits, but sold in large quantities [20].  In fact, in a paper Ford wrote on industry he said, “To me, all the mechanical developments of the century are not very important as compared with the knowledge we are gaining of how to use everything in the public interest while preserving the full advantages of individual initiative.  For otherwise, the facilities of industry might be only a curse instead of a blessing [21].”  In other words, Ford had recognized that all of the recent technical developments were only useful if they were utilized in a manner that always kept the needs of the people foremost in mind.  This was precisely what he was doing in his attempt to produce cars for the masses.

In 1903, Henry Ford, an American farmer, machinist, steam engineer, and mechanic, opened the Ford Motor Company and the invention of the modern automobile was soon to follow.  Beginning in 1906, the company manufactured the Model N.  Based on its success, they released the Model T in 1908.  Unlike the European cars of the early twentieth century, these cars showed little attention to detailed finish.  Ford utilized his mechanical intuition to focus on functionality, not style.  With the Model T came the incorporation of the assembly line and mass production, or what has commonly been named “Fordism.”  Ford did not actually invent the assembly line, but he did bring it to the automobile industry and mechanize it.  At first, his assembly line consisted of a car being pulled on a skid to each assembly location where all the needed parts and tools were already located and each assembler only had to perform one simple operation.  By 1913, Ford had mechanized the process; a conveyor moved the car to each assembly location.  Standardized parts allowed components to be utilized in multiple locations and models.  Parts made and purchased elsewhere and then delivered to the assembly line allowed the line to operate continuously.  Improved machine tools allowed metal parts to not only be formed faster but also more accurately and precisely [22].  Some people have compared Ford’s system to Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management,” where every process in industry was scheduled, planned, and monitored in order to achieve maximum efficiency.  In fact, Taylor stated, “in the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first.”  By “system,” he referred to those processes controlled by “scientific management.”  However, at its very root, “Fordism” was not “scientific management.”  It was not based on a “scientific” schedule.  In order to achieve mass production, Ford envisioned a continuous flow of raw materials, components, and assembled products.  Therefore, he set up his factories at Highland Park and River Rouge in a manner conducive to this continuous flow [23].  In the end, the continuous operation of the assembly line necessarily demanded the efficiency of all processes stemming from mining raw materials to delivering finished products to the dealers.  In fact, Ford’s idea was “to name a price so low as to force everybody in the place to the highest point of efficiency.  The low price makes everybody dig for profits [24].” 


River Rouge

By 1916, production exceeded 700,000 units and the sticker price dropped to a mere $345.  By 1927, fifteen million Model T’s had been sold.  Henry Ford had succeeded.  He had produced a low priced, lightweight, high power to weight ratio vehicle.  The middle class family now owned a car.  Weekend visits with relatives were possible.  Trips to the market to buy sugar and flour became normal everyday activities.  Still, in Europe, car producers did not believe the mass market was big enough to justify the mass production of low priced vehicles, so they continued to produce luxury vehicles with high unit profits [25].


The Model T                                                                                   Model T Chassis

How had Henry Ford succeeded, though?  What kind of people had he hired to machine and assemble the Model T?  In 1913, following the incorporation of the mechanized assembly line, Ford employed 13,300 laborers.  The breakdown was as follows: 2% mechanics and sub foremen, 26% skilled operators, 51% operators, and 21% unskilled workers.  This breakdown was unique as other manufacturers of the day typically employed 65-70% skilled workers, 10-25% semiskilled workers, and 10-20% unskilled workers.  By utilizing the assembly line procedure, Ford reduced assembly to a series of simple steps which allowed him to tap into the large pool of American unskilled and semiskilled workers.  Many people have criticized “Fordism” for reducing competent human beings to a sort of robot performing the same task hundreds of times each day.  However, it should be noted that these laborers only worked eight hours per day, forty hours per week, were paid high wages, and received Christmas bonuses in accordance with the company’s profits for the year [26].

Henry Ford had invented the modern automobile.  Some people may argue Ford had merely innovated or modified the automobile; however, the modern automobile is more than just the self propelled vehicle; it is a vast system composed of many people, organizations, and companies.  It was not obvious that a gas-powered vehicle could be produced in a manner that made it affordable to the average American without sacrificing quality.  It was not obvious that over 700,000 could be assembled in a single year.  It was not obvious that so many companies and people could be incorporated into the chain that made all of this possible.  It was not obvious that an entire country’s economy could rest so heavily on this one industry.  Certainly, the middle class found the automobiles useful, else fifteen million Model T’s would not have sold in a span of less than 20 years.  Certainly, “Fordism” constituted a new, useful, and non-obvious product and process.  With these ideas in mind, it is clear how with the statement, “The way to make automobiles, is to make one automobile just like another automobile,” Henry Ford had invented the modern automobile. 

As this is a History of Science web page, our analysis should not and cannot end here.  It has been documented how the modern automobile came to be; it must also be put into a historical perspective.  In other words, how does the invention of the automobile fit into the history of science?  To answer this question, the link between science and invention must be examined.  Thomas Hughes, author of American Genesis (1989), offered this explanation.  “Independent inventors had boasted of their craft and art; scientists would take pride in the objectivity, universality, and transfer ability of their knowledge.”  In other words, scientists observed nature and used mathematics to formulate natural and scientific law.  Whether inventors knew it or not, the world had become at least familiar with these laws; they were “universal and transferable knowledge.”  Even if they did so unknowingly, inventors realized they could use this knowledge to create and control the material world.  They could develop a human made world.  Beginning in the late nineteenth century, especially in the United States, the development of a technological culture began.  Technological systems centered on energy, production, communication, and transportation instilled the values of order, system, and control in an ever-changing society.  Inventions based on the laws of science, functioned in an orderly, controllable, predictable, rational, and efficient manner.  The material world was being organized to serve our needs.  In addition, businessmen/women and entrepreneurs realized the prosperity of invention.  If an inventor developed an idea that could serve the people’s needs, he/she could sell the idea or the product in order to make a profit [27].

You might ask how this relates to Henry Ford and the invention of the modern automobile.  Where did the modern automobile fit into the relationship between science and invention? The invention of the automobile was obviously not the first invention; however, it acted as a key historical invention.  Once again, Hughes offered some interesting insight into the question at hand.  “American invention was shifting from a revolutionary to an evolutionary mode.”  In other words, at the turn of the century the number of independent inventors who developed “system originating” ideas decreased, while the number of industrial inventors who developed “system improving” ideas increased.  Hughes characterized Ford as a  “system builder.”  The “originating” idea, the self propelled vehicle, was already in place, but Ford made it a component of an organized and controlled technological system.  The modern automobile was not the first industrial system, as the electricity industry had also implemented a vast system of production and utilization, but the modern automobile was the first system that people understood.  Electricity was still abstract to many people, but Ford’s system was mechanical and people could relate to it.  “Fordism” instilled the values of order, system, and control in the masses.  The modern automobile was an orderly, controllable, efficient system that benefited and continues to benefit incredible amounts of people.  It was a major stepping-stone in the transition from the quest of individual inventors to develop single original devices to the quest of industrial inventors to develop complete technological systems in order to meet the needs of the most people in the most efficient manner.  An immense technological system had been produced.  It also demonstrated a significant relationship between invention and business.  Ford had manufactured and sold his invention at a price resulting in small per unit profit, but because he was able to manufacture and sell his invention in mass quantities, he was able to make a legitimate total profit.  From that point on, the value of invention to the masses was realized.  The average American farmer stood to reap the benefits of owning an automobile, not the rich politician who already had most everything he/she needed at his/her fingertips [28]. 

Further Reading

At this point, it must be reiterated that this account of the invention of the modern automobile was only a brief summary.  Many people contributed significant ideas to the steam engine, the electric battery, and the internal combustion engine along the way.  Also, the developers and details of many of the components of the vehicle that we know and recognize today were not discussed.  Many of these developments would be of great interest to anyone researching the history of the automobile.  Almost every book concerned with the history of invention and/or the automobile would spell out these developments in a similar fashion.  Some sources used in developing this account included: Trevor Williams’ A History of Invention (2000) and Maurice Fabre’s A History of Land Transportation (1963).

A more critical researcher of the automobile invention might be interested in more than just the hard facts of who did what and when.  For example, the notion of why people made certain developments or what led them to make those developments might be of particular interest.  These insights are not commonly found in the plain “history” books.  A good source for this kind of insight would be James Flink’s The Automobile Age (1988).  Other researchers may be interested in the historical, scientific, and social importance of the automobile invention.  Thomas Hughes’ American Genesis (1989) provided a good source for this sort of information. 

However, care must be taken when obtaining information from any book relating to the history of the automobile.  Some of these books were written in the first half of the twentieth century.  The perception of the automobile in the 1920’s was quite different than the perception of the automobile in today’s world.  In the 1920’s, people were probably not fully aware of the far-reaching effects that Henry Ford would have on the automobile.  Books from this time period may consider Benz or Daimler as the inventor of the automobile or they may consider Cugnot as the inventor for using a steam engine to propel a carriage.  As we now know, the vehicles developed by these men were far different than the modern perception of the automobile. 

New perspectives on the subject may not yet be available in books, as even Flink and Hughes’ books were written in the late 1980’s, but there may be new and intriguing articles being written for newspapers and magazines.  A good place to locate these articles is the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Database accessible at most libraries. 

Finally, in today’s information age, the Internet must be considered as a potential source of information.  As with the history books, the Internet did not seem to offer any insight more in depth than who made what accomplishments in what year.  The Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford Museum, and the Daimler-Chrysler  web pages provided well organized timelines outlining this information, but historical perspectives such as why these men were able to make these advancements could not be located.      


    1. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  Cambridge.  The MIT Press.  1988.  pg 43.
     2. Fabre, Maurice.  A History of Land Transportation.  New York.  Hawthorne Books, Inc.                 Publishers. 1963.  pg 7.

    3. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 1.

  1. Williams, Trevor I.  A History of Invention: From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips.  United Kingdom.  William E. Shaaf Jr. / Little, Brown and Company.  2000.  pg 162.
  2. Fabre, Maurice.  A History of Land Transportation.  pg 74. 
  3. Fabre, Maurice.  A History of Land Transportation.  pg 75.
  4. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 6-7.
  5. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 8-10. 
  6. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 3-6.
  7. Williams, Trevor I.  A History of Invention: From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips.  pg 166.
  8. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 11-12.
  9. Kaempffert, Waldemar.  A Popular History of American Invention.  New York.  A.L. Burt Company Publishers.  1924.  pgs 144-146.
  10. Fabre, Maurice.  A History of Land Transportation.  pg 81. 
  11. Kaempffert, Waldemar.  A Popular History of American Invention. pg 147.
  12. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 16.
  13. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 13.
  14. Williams, Trevor I.  A History of Invention: From Stone Axes to Silicon Chips.  pg 248.
  15. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 36, 38.
  16. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 35.
  17. Kaempffert, Waldemar.  A Popular History of American Invention.  pg 156.
  18. Beard, Charles A.  A Century of Progress.  New York.  Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.  1970.  pg 67.
  19. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 40-43.
  20. Hughes, Thomas.  American Genesis.  New York.  Penguin Group.  1989.  pgs 188, 193, 203-204.
  21. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pg 115.
  22. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 37-39.
  23. Flink, James J.  The Automobile Age.  pgs 43, 119-120.
  24. Hughes, Thomas.  American Genesis. pg 139.
  25. Hughes, Thomas.  American Genesis. pgs 1-11, 53, 139, 186