Why did it take so long to invent the car?

Why was the automobile not invented until the 1890’s? The basic principle behind automotion by steam power had been in use since the first half of the 19th century in trains and steamboats. Of course, those used coal, and a coal-powered car wouldn’t make sense, but petroleum was already big stuff in the 1850’s, wasn’t it?

Once the use of petroleum for energy was understood, what great barrier remained to the creation of the car that wasn’t solved for so long?

The locomotive was, essentially, the first steam car. But because steam engines were so bulky and heavy they required a tracked vehicle. Tire technology was non-existant. Wagons just had solid wooden wheels. So you had to advance ‘road’ technology along with the vehicle (i.e. we jumped from dirt paths for wagons right to railroad tracks for trains.)

The big thing that made cars practical was the internal combustion engine. It was small and light enough to put in, basically, a stagecoach chassis.

So the car in the form we have today didn’t really appear until the late 19th century. But the basic technology appeared earlier.

Another reason we didn’t get steam-powered cars is throttleability. A steam engine is a finiky machine that doesn’t respond quickly to changes in throttle. It takes some time to get a steam engine up to full power, while an internal combustion engine can get from idle to full power in a matter of seconds. For trains and boats, where you’re going to be steaming along at constant speed most of the time, a steam engine is fine. For driving a car, with a lot more variability in speed and the need to stop and start often, you need something more responsive like an internal combustion engine.

There were some attempts to make steam powered cars early on, and there have been more recently too, but they just never caught on.

Although cmkeller is correct about the first automobiles being invented in the early 1890s, it is not true that “petroleum was already big stuff in the 1850s.” In fact, oil was not successfully drilled commercially until about 1860 – in Western Pennsylvania. At this time, however, this petroleum was only being used for heating and lighting fuel. With Edison’s invention of the lightbulb around 1880, the invention of a practical internal combustion engine (by a German dude named Otto) saved the oil industry.

Anyhow, by the mid-1880s Daimler had improved on Otto’s design, and (here’s the key!) developed the carburetor to let the engine run on gasoline. From there, it was really only a few more years before honest-to-goodness horseless carriages were developed. So you see, it didn’t take them long to go from gas-powered engine to the first car, only a few years!

I highly recommed Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize” for a comprehensive and readable history or oil…

There were 3 competing technologies for automobiles at the turn of the century - internal combustion, steam and electric. Many people don’t realize that electric cars were constructed from the 1890’s, and sold in significant numbers. The Baker and Detroit electrics were probably the most succesful makes.
When I was a kid, I knew a family that had a vintage 1903 Baker Electric - they broke it out for parades and things like that. Here’s a picture of a 1902 Baker Electric:

Electrics had the same disadvantages then as they do now - wimpy power and limited range. They were seen as low maintenance and easy to operate, and were popular with women and house-call-making doctors who used them as in-town runabouts. Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric, actually. She didn’t think gas-powered cars were really safe, however many Model T’s her hubby’s factory turned out. Henry Ford endorsed Detroit Electric, the make his wife drove, in a published advertisment.

Stanley, White and Doble were among the steam-driven makes. There is a persistent urban legend that the disappearance of public horse-troughs killed off steamers, but it is more likely that it was the invention of the electric starter. With that advance, internal combustion automobiles became something you just hopped in, mashed the starter with your foot , and took off. Steamers required a warm-up, though the last of them had gotten the cold start time down to something which wasn’t too bad.

Dobles were quite well engineered and interesting, probably the apex of commercially produced steam automobiles. Doble went bankrupt in the early 30’s:


Joseph Etienne Lenoir discovered the combustible properties of petroleum distillates in 1860 and made an engine based on Thomas Newcomen’s Newcomen engine (which was also the basis for James Watt’s more successful and efficient steam engine). Nikolaus Otto invented the four-stroke Otto engine in 1876 which used cylinders, cams, and pistons similar to modern gas engines. All of these engines were powered by town gas. Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach left Otto’s shop in 1882 and developed their own engines. In 1892 Maybach had perfected the carburetor (that was based on scent spray technology). In 1900 Daimler and Maybach perfected a modern engine that used the carburetor and spark plug that was used in boats and automobiles. They named the new car after the daughter of their largest distributor, Mercedes. So the technology to make cars didn’t exist until much later in the 1800’s.

Just want to mention another facet of internal combustion engines that precluded earlier development. These things, even the one cylinder jobs of the 1890s, required quite precise engineering. Very fine casting and milling. It was easy to make an engine that lasted an hour. To make one that could run for years was (and is) something else. Hence auto races were good ways to slowly improve technology. Figure out how to win a 100 mile race, then a 200 mile race, … then put into production.

Another important piece of technology is the pneumatic tire. Those weren’t invented till 1888.

It took many, many things to come together to develop the car. I believe that the story was told during the series Connections, which appeared on PBS years ago.

I am much more cofused about why it took so long to put wheels on suitcases.

We had the technology, dammit. The friggin’ Romans had the technology!

Thanks. While clearly there were a number of things I was missing, I think it was the carbeurator that I’d forgotten needed to be developed.

As for pneumatic tires, scr4, didn’t the earliest cars actually have wooden wheels and no tires?

Chaim Mattis Keller

I think that the Key is that the car relies on more than an internal combustion engine. It needs:

A power source

The basics of wheels steering, chassis , suspension and brakes were around, but they all weighed a lot and thus required a massive power source.

The car evolved as the technologies needed to build one improved eg the diesel engine, Pneumatic tyres, light strong building materials more powerful brakes.

As they mproved, the car changed from a steam engine to a train to a horse carriage with an engine to a car. the the beautiful metal sculptures/penile extensions that we know and love today.