Horseless vehicles an ancient ambition (1909)

For hundreds of years has it been tried

Horseless drawn vehicles ancient ambition

Self-moving machines date from 200 B C

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The horseless drawn vehicle which is to be seen upon our streets today passes with but little thought from the multitude of the enormous amount of study and brains that have been centered upon the accomplishment of economy in conveyance and accompanying it with speed in transportation. There are but few possibly that have given the question of our self-propelled vehicles of today the thought as to how they originated or how far back in the era of time the date of beginning is recorded of self-propelled vehicles.

The earliest steam engines

The very first steam engine — that of the Heron of Alexandria B C 200 — produced rotary motion by the reaction of a couple of steam jets issuing from a bronze sphere mounted upon trunnions. Also that the first engine used for the imparting of rotary motion to other machinery was that of the Italian Branca and consisted of a kind of windmill, against the vanes of which a jet of steam was caused to impinge, and it is interesting to note that the first steamed-propelled horseless carriage was driven by a jet of steam, for it appears that over three centuries ago, a Jesuit missionary among the Chinese — Father Verbiest — set up a jet and vaned wheel arrangement similar to Branca’s engine upon a road carriage, which it propelled through the intervention of suitable gearing.

Passing over the attempts made by various nationalities to perfect a road machine that would transport passengers and freight without the aid of horses the next practical innovation was in 1769 when Nicholas Joseph Cugnot constructed and ran a model in 1763. Upon this vehicle the French military authorities improved and wished to use it in the moving of heavy military ordnance. This never proved successful, and horseless vehicle problems remained a dead issue until in 1822.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney commenced his work upon a horseless road locomotion problem, and he was a man of scientific attainments, but disclaimed being a practical engineer, but entered upon the subject from a conviction of its great importance. His ideas were, however, that the machine, like the man, should be propelled by a system of legs, of which for his machine he was to have ten leg propellers.

It is a noteworthy fact that on the very day Gurney was accomplishing his project a paper was being published by a practical mathematician proving that a steam road carriage could never be made to propel itself at all.

Spring power

The first attempt to propel vehicles by means of stored springs was made in Paris In 1644, and by an Englishman. This carriage was intended to convey passengers from Paris to Fontainebleau and back in one day, and it was advertised that if this could be accomplished there would be great economy in the matter, as at that time hay and feed were quite high. The carriage worked finely in the room, but the labor of winding up the springs, which, of course, was performed by men, was so great that the economy in the feed was all exhausted in the expense of the men, and this project had to be abandoned.

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With more or less success and more or less failure, the subsequent years passed along without much progress being made in the development of the horseless drawn vehicle, and, in fact, it was not until in the nineteenth century that anything practical developed that gave hope to the abandonment of the horse-drawn vehicle for that of other power.

In 1870, a clockwork omnibus was actually tried on the streets of New Orleans, and in the same year, a French inventor gave out that his horseless vehicle would transport three passengers at the rate of nine to ten miles an hour, and that his springs required winding but once an hour, which could be done while the machine was in motion.”

The next improvement upon this antique method was the announcement that springs would be carried under the floor of the carriage and would be wound up at stations provided for the purpose along the route of the carriages by stationary steam engines for the purpose. A company was actually formed to promote the scheme, and they did build two of the cars, but of course never proved successful.

The period from 1821 to 1840 was one of the most intense activity in steam carriage building, and in London alone in the year 1833, there were as many as twenty drays and carriages in operation, and companies were formed to transport passengers between London and other English cities.

About the year 1870, several engineers in Scotland took up the construction of steam carriages and high-speed traction engines. In 1867 R W Thomson, who was the inventor of the pneumatic tire, invented what he termed a steam road engine, the wheels of which were fitted with thick solid India rubber tires, and a large demand for these engines sprang up. They were really traction engines and some of them were geared to run at high speed for hauling omnibuses, etc., and were sent to India and other places for transportation of passengers.

A highly interesting carriage was built in 1872 for Charles Randolph, who, after retiring from the firm of Randolph & Elder of Glasgow, had devoted some thought to the construction of steam road engines, and this carriage was run about the streets of Glasgow, experiencing no difficulty in threading its way among the other vehicles and the pedestrians of the Scottish metropolis. It could be stopped in its own length and turned in a space of forty feet.

Developments in the USA

In America, the inventive mind had been at work since the year 1853, when J K Fisher built a steam carriage with which a speed of fifteen miles an hour had been attained, which was all right on the pavements, but the construction of the machine was too light to stand the roads.

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The pioneer in the manufacture or invention of electrically propelled vehicles appears to have been an American blacksmith, Davenport by name, and a resident of Vermont. A good deal of thought was being given to electric magnetic motors at this time and Davenport worked out his motor and carriage quite independently. It was constructed and taken to London to be exhibited. The electric vehicle progressed with gradual success until they were able to carry their own stored power and were the beginning of the perfected machine of today.

Many inventors worked upon the development of the electric machines and all with success. Companies were easy to form, money was forthcoming and advancement made with the propositions. The movement received a great impetus when Gramme discovered the reversibility of the dynamo electric generator.

The first practical electric carriage

The first electric carriage that can be said to have been practical and approaching a satisfactory issue was that of Pouchain in 1893. This was a six-seated phaeton on four wheels, and had a battery of fifty-four elements, each of three plates and of power equal to about 3500 watts and normal speed of 1650 revolutions per minute. It was geared to the rear axle through an intermediate shaft and chain gearing. The speed of the car was varied by changing the group of cells, and this was effected by rotating a cylinder which carried suitable contact pieces. The battery weighed about 1100 pounds, the motor 240 and the total about one and a quarter tons.

It will be seen through the brief attention called to the work of the inventors of horseless drawn vehicles up to this time, their minds had all been spent, upon the development of the steam engine and the electric machine of the later years. With steam there was always the question of fuel and the dirt of the carbon smoke and soot, which were a drawback, and with varying success in various parts of the world the inventive genius bent his efforts to overcome the difficulties that had all along impeded the march of progress in developing the vehicle to be operated under self-control.

It was not until the year 1894, however, that a marked revival of the importance of the present motor movement became apparent. Carriages were produced about this time that gave promise of the present enormous industry, which, while far from perfect, gave results that promised the favorable consideration of capital and constructive genius.

Daimler and Benz

The first principle was applied to the bicycle by the inventor Daimler and finally Benz — Carl Benz of Mannheim in 1885, built the three-wheeled motor carriages fitted with a gas engine, the designs of which were careful thoughts. Next came Panhard and his firm was one of the first to produce the petrol cars. Their first constructions were for motor boats, and later their study took them into the fields for producing the same motor for road purposes, acquiring the Daimler patents and in 1891 they brought out a very respectable looking car to be propelled upon the highways and it proved successful. In three years his firm had turned out about ninety of these cars. It is to be regretted that in so limited an article more space cannot be given to the progress made by Panhard and Levassor in the production of the motor car, many of the principles of which are still retained in the cars of today.

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It would be interesting to follow the progress of the inventive genius from the time of the organization of the Daimler company in England and the first production of real motor cars with tonneaus of the present types of our modern cars. This company gained an enviable reputation In the building of classy cars, and among the patrons of Daimler became his majesty the king, for whom the company built four cars.

With the introduction of the carburetor, governing power, ignition, cooling principle, gearing, etc., we have the present perfect car of today.

The observer has but to look about the streets of such a city as Los Angeles and see the noiseless machines that are more prominent in numbers today than horse-drawn vehicles and note the advancement manufacturers have made upon the machines of the past.

The utilities of the automobile today are past even comprehension. They are as varied as the minds of men. The fire and police departments of today are incomplete without their patrols and fire engines, chemical and hook and ladder trucks, water towers, ambulances, funeral cars, pleasure cars, touring and camping machines, motor trucks, and even the repair man travels the highways of the country roads with his motor car bedecked with the signs “I repair everything,” his car being general kit shop, carrying all the tools of the well regulated stationary shop of the street.

The matter of speed has been pressed by the manufacturer until such prodigious records are recorded as a mile in 42-1/5 seconds, racing teams are employed and cars of 120-horsepower are frequent.

The progress of the automobile has been one of the most wonderful developments known to American mercantile or manufacturing history. Not only the manufacture of the cars themselves have drawn prodigious sums of capital into the line of manufacture, but the tires, the accessories of the automobile are almost beyond computation.

That the industry is still in its infancy there can be but little doubt. Certainly until the aeroplane takes the motor car’s place in practical use the automobile will continue to grow in popular favor for pleasure use.

The utilities of the automobile are confined only to the actual demands of the owner, as they can be made available for almost every purpose known to man for his assistance in either performances of economical work or for the pleasure of the owner.


Top photo: English: 1909 Thomas Flyer automobile, Salt Lake City; photo by Shipler Commercial Photographers. Photo 3: Steam engine, such as seen in Alexandria, 100 CE (Courtesy Smithsonian)

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