Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Compact Power: The Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) and the Early History of the Automobile

            Along with the development of the bicycle, the internal combustion engine was most critical to developments in early automobile history. Credit for the ICE is normally given to Belgian inventor Etienne Lenoir (1822-1900). Living in France, Lenoir patented a two-stroke engine in 1860 that used illuminating gas (gas derived from heating coal in large retorts) that was ignited by a spark generated by a battery and coil. Lenoir’s engine was noisy and inefficient, and it tended to overheat. Used in stationary applications to power pumps and machines, some 250 were sold by 1865. And while the editor of Scientific American proclaimed in 1860 that with the coming of the Lenoir engine the Age of Steam was coming to an end, it took more than four decades before the ICE would eclipse the steam engine.16

Lenoir  engine

            In 1876, Nicholas Otto (1832-1891) developed a four-cycle engine (intake, compression, power, and exhaust), and Lenoir came up with a similar design during 1883 and 1884. Two engineers who had once worked for Otto, Gottleib Daimler (1834-1900) and Wilhelm Maybach (1846-1929), designed a 1.5 horsepower, 110 pound, 600 rpm “high speed engine” in 1885, and built several experimental vehicles between 1885 and 1889. Maybach, one of the most important engineer-inventors of this early period, designed the modern carburetor for mixing air and gasoline in 1893.17

Form of 1876 Otto Engine

Maybach High Speed Engine

            In the meantime, Karl Benz (1844-1929) built a tricycle in 1885 to 1886 and exhibited a design at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. By 1893 he had constructed an improved four-wheel car with a three-horsepower engine that sold well and was fairly reliable. More than 100 Benz vehicles were sold by 1898. An early leader, Benz was soon passed technologically, especially by French manufacturers.
            James Laux, in his book First Gear, characterizes in detail the French automobile industry before 1914.18 The key French inventor-engineer of the late nineteenth century was Emile Constant Levassor, who took Gottleib Daimler’s engine and placed it in the front of the vehicle. Before Levassor’s untimely death, he proved the merits of his design – that a vehicle of his design could be practical – in the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race. At first, and for only a relatively short time, Paris was the center of the nascent global automobile industry. Perhaps this was due to excellent French roads or social, economic, or political factors that remain to be explicated and are currently discounted. James Flink has argued that the importance of Paris was accidental rather than a crystallization of a complex network of relationships that included German, French, and Belgian inventors and businessmen.

            The importance of the early French auto industry is reflected in the following chart20:
Total Vehicles in Use

            While a number of entrepreneurs in England, America, and Germany were only beginning to catch up to the French by the end of the nineteenth century, there was a concurrent Darwinian-like competition among three rival technologies in terms of power–the ICE already mentioned, steam, and electricity. In the end the most economically efficient technology would prevail, but that was by no means clear to those living in 1900.

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