The Distant History of the Automobile

A Tortuous Journey.

Most of use a car every day.  Those who do not still rely on an internal combustion energy, in some capacity, as we enjoy life’s modern conveniences.  This (rebooted) blog is a celebration of motorsport.  However, to understand motorsport, it is only proper to begin with the story underlying it all: the story of the car.

Some time ago, I decided that it was absurd how little I knew about the inception of the automobile (in light of my passion for cars).  Sure, I knew that Kark Benz and a 19th century patent had something to do with it.  In fact, I even knew that the car came about, more or less, in the 1880s.  Yet, I could not have told you much more with any reasonable degree of certainty.  What surprised me was the twists and turns humanity took in its quest to find a means of horseless (or animal-less) land propulsion.

It Was a Matter of Vision.

By the 17th century, a strong societal need was emerging for horseless propulsion.  Global trade was flourishing and the horse and carriage of the inland was outmatched by the galleon of the seas, when it came to moving people and goods.  In the case of the automobile, necessity was very plainly the mother invention.  Even when its need was becoming paramount in the 1700s, the landscape lacked someone with both the engineering genius and futuristic vision to create something as wild as the “automobile.”

You see, a lot needed to happen before the everyman could hop in his ride and take a cruise around town.  First, there needed to be roads suited for the wheels and tires of the time.  Second, a power sourced was necessary to move the vehicle, which was unencumbered by excessive weight.  Third, a method of transmitting the rotary power of the internal combustion engine to the road was required.  Fourth, the vehicle needed to be reasonable capable of getting up to speed, maintaining speed, and turning.  It also needed to stop in a safe matter.  These are merely the most prominent features required of a self-propelled vehicle.

This was a tall order.  Certainly, the need for horseless propulsion had been growing since the early days of the enlightenment, if not before.  While need may be the mother of innovation, need does not in and of itself necessitate invention or progress.  That takes perseverance and vision.  There were those such as James Watt who never believed a society driven by vehicles would be possible; however, were willing to register patents to impede the progress of others.  Yes, I am suggesting that the man for whom the unit of power is named was also something of a patent troll.

There were technical problems as well.  For example, how do you turn a car?  It is easy to get the front two wheels to angle left or right in unison.  But, how do you get the driving wheels to turn at the slightly different speeds critical for executing a turn?  It is these types of problems that caused over 150 years of trials and tribulations before Karl Benz invented what is generally accepted as the grandfather of the modern car.

Having set the stage, I will leave things here until the next post, which will deal with the ancient history of locomotion.