Friday, June 28, 2013
The Automobile: European by Birth, American by Adoption
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
Gottlieb Daimler, working in Cannstadt, Swabia, Germany -- independent of Benz.
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
An early Panhard.
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.
After the 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 in
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
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. Newport, Rhode Island
The key 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.
While the 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.
Whatever 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.
Technological 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 transportation technology.7
Steam 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.
Steam carriage, circa 1870
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