This blog will expand on themes and topics first mentioned in my book, "The Automobile and American Life." I hope to comment on recent developments in the automobile industry, reviews of my readings on the history of the automobile, drafts of my new work, contributions from friends, descriptions of the museums and car shows I attend and anything else relevant to those interested in automobiles and auto history. Copyright 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 , 2016 by the author.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
The Automobile: "European by Birth, American by Adoption"
1903 Panhard et Levassor
1903 Mercedes 60 HP at Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2013
European by Birth, American by Adoption
An apt but worn-out cliché
concerning the early history of the automobile is that “the automobile was
European by birth, American by adoption.” Indeed, the visionary idea of the
automobile – in the words of James Flink, “the combination of a light, sprung,
wheeled vehicle; a compact, efficient power unit; and hard surfaced roads”
gradually became a reality during the last half of the nineteenth century,
primarily in Europe and to a lesser degree in America.2 The idea was
transformed into a complex artifact, one that quickly hardened in fundamental
design. For example, the basic configuration of the modern automobile with the
radiator and engine in the front, followed by the clutch, transmission and rear
axle drive, the système Panhard, was
devised in France in 1891.3 A decade later, the 1903 De Dion-Bouton
followed this scheme with a honeycomb radiator, sliding design four-speed
transmission, and a steel frame, clearly distinct form the horseless carriage.
Most importantly, the De Dion used an ingenious rear axle that replaced the
cumbersome chain drive with half shafts transmitting power to the drive wheels.
And finally, the 1903 “Sixty” Mercedes, despite its chain drive, had a magneto
ignition, six-cylinder engine, and speeds capable of 60 miles per hour.4
In fundamental terms, the modern automobile crystallized technologically very
quickly, and thus its origins are a most important object for study.
idea and pioneering artifact came the commonly-used term automobile. Tracing its introduction (a semantic history) tells us
much about the early history of the automobile
As Patricia Lipski skillfully pointed out, the word was French, but key to its
adoption in America was its acceptance by New York City’s high society.5
A French term first used in America in 1895 and fully adopted in the U.S. by
1899, other words were proposed and debated during this time – horseless carriage, motocycle, motor
vehicle, automation, mocle, autom, polycycle. Members of high society in New York City owned the
first cars, including William Rockefeller, George Gould, Edwin Gould, John
Jacob Astor, Jacob Ruppert, C. P. Huntington, and Claus Spreckels. This
Gilded Age aristocracy paraded their vehicles at Newport, Rhode Island
in the summer of 1899, and influenced the newly-published editorial writers of
the magazines The Automobile and The Automobile Magazine to endorse automobile as a universally accepted
term. In sum, while the beginnings of the automobile are often attributed to a
group of visionary tinkerers, engineers, inventors, and mechanical geniuses,
the upper classes were the consumers of this product, and they cast a lasting
imprint on its place in culture in ways perhaps more complex than just the
choice of a term.
innovations associated with this new transportation technology, its gradual
diffusion and acceptance, first public impressions, and initial cultural
responses are the most significant areas of research. These topics have
received considerable scholarly attention.6 While my own interests
tend to focus on a later period, coverage must begin here, at the critical
moment of creation.
origins of a new technological system are undoubtedly important, historians
often work backwards in time to fully trace strands of seminal ideas and
techniques. That tendency can often prevent scholars from addressing more
recent pressing and relevant matters. With the passage of time, perspectives
become clearer, records are discovered and catalogued, and historical actors
with a penchant to refute one’s story die. Yet the recent past often has the
most relevance for the living, despite the many methodological and practical
obstacles in pursuing it.
the time frame under investigation, the tension between continuity and change
challenges the historian in a unique manner. What distinguishes the historian
from the sociologist or philosopher, however, is the scrupulous adherence to
chronology and time.
antecedents to the automobile included the work of Nicholas Joseph Cugnot
between 1765 and 1770 on a three-wheel steam tractor for pulling cannons;
Richard Trevithick and his experiments with a steam locomotive conducted during
the years 1801 and 1803; and Philadelphia inventor Oliver Evans and his
“Orukter Amphibolos” or “Amphibious Digger.” All of these early efforts have
been described in more extensive detail elsewhere, but are mentioned here to
provide a sense of the long sweep of history concerning this form of
carriages appeared on the scene primarily in England beginning in the 1820s,
although in 1865 horse-drawn transportation interests suppressed mechanical
road vehicles with the passage in Parliament of the so-called Red Flag Act.
This legislation limited the speed of “road locomotives” to 2 mph in towns and
4 mph on the open highway. It also required that an attendant walk 60 yards
ahead carrying a red flag by day and a red lantern by night. Until its repeal
in 1896 at the request of wealthy automobile pioneers, the act militated
against the development of the automobile idea in Great Britain, for by 1890 there
were light steam vehicles capable of speeds of 15 mph over long distances.
David Beasley’s The Suppression of the Automobile: Skullduggery at the
Crossroads discusses this chapter in history, important in terms of British
developments, but tangential to mainstream developments in the emergence of the
internal combustion engine (ICE) that would prove key to the automobile’s
acceptance in Europe and America.8