Dreams Beyond Measure: The World's First Self-Propelled Vehicle

Before motorized vehicles are even glimmers in science fiction writers’ imaginations, artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), designs a self-propelled cart capable of moving without the assistance of horses or humans. His detailed drawings propose the use of coiled springs to power its movement, and feature steering and brake capabilities. Once the brake is released, the car is propelled forward and either goes straight or at pre-set angles via programmable steering. Based on the schematics outlined in the sketches of this extraordinary 15th century vision, many consider the da Vinci cart—also affectionately known as the “da Vinci Fiat”—the world’s first robot.


Da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart Sketch

Sketch of Leonardo da Vinci’s pre-programmed clockwork cart. The autonomous vehicle is designed to be powered by large coiled clockwork springs, propelling it over 130 feet and controlled by a mechanism that can take it through a desired course.

1500 - 2004

Da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart Model Brought to Life

In 2004, over five centuries after Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of his self-propelled cart was first presented, engineers create a working scale model based on the schematics from the original plans. The discovery of coiled springs hidden in drums beneath the car in the drawings helps experts realize how to make the cart actually move.


The World’s First Car: The Cugnot Steamer

French military engineer, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, is chosen by French Minister of war, Etienne-Francois, to find something to haul all of the large, heavy artillery that is more practical and durable than horses. With the help of another military mechanic named Brezin, Cugnot creates the Fardier à vapeur (steam dray), the world’s first car, at the Paris Arsenal. Powered by steam, Cugnot places the engine and boiler above the front wheel, and uses two pistons to push the notched discs located on either side. Slow and unwieldy, the heavy vehicle gets the job done and a 4-passenger design is introduced. Lack of brakes causes it to get into the first ever car accident when it runs into a wall, however, and the Cugnot Steamer is shelved in 1771, but not forgotten.


The Curse of the Indispensable Man

Scotland-born William Murdoch is set upon becoming an inventor with English engineering firm, Boulton & Watt , and walks over 300 miles from his home in Ayrshire to Birmingham in 1777 to apply for a job. He’s hired to work on pumping water from the tin mines in Cornwall via steam, and quickly makes himself indispensable. He becomes so fascinated by the application of steam, however, William goes to work on how to use it to propel vehicles on his own. By 1784, he builds a small working steam engine model in his living room, taking it outside to the road one night to test it further. His automobile goes so fast, William has to race after it only to hear screams of terror in the dark. He comes across a pastor who thinks the fire breathing, self-propelled thing that almost hits him is the devil and has to calm him down. William decides to patent his invention and when he’s literally on his way to do so, he runs into his boss, Matthew Boulton. When he hears what William’s planning, Boulton talks him out of it, telling him the idea’s too risky and ambitious — however, the real reason is that Murdoch has become such an asset to Boulton and Watt, they don’t want to lose him. The two go so far as patenting many Murdoch-based innovations in Watt’s name, including his sun and planet gear — technology that uses steam to rotate a cogwheel fixed to a rod, basically creating the first pistons and drive shaft. Although he’s created the first steam carriage to run on a British road, William abandons his project and continues working for Watt and Boulton, becoming a partner in 1810 and staying until he retires in 1830.


Worldwide Synchronicity — Great Minds Creating Alike

Although getting from Point A to Point B by horse—whether by saddle or horse-drawn carriage and buggy — is the primary mode of transportation, the 1800s is soon defined by a series of land travel breakthroughs. Global efforts by inventors from the Netherlands to Hungary to the United States and beyond lead to the creation of the first electric battery, which prompts the first battery-powered vehicle with an electric motor and, ultimately, the realization of the first small-scale electric cars.


Ányos Jedlik

The invention of the electric vehicle is attributed to various people, however, Ányos Jedlik of Hungary invents an early type of electric motor in 1827 and creates a tiny model car powered by his new engine in 1828.


Thomas Davenport From Vermont

Vermont blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, builds his own batteries and develops a battery-powered electric motor, wrapping strips of his wife’s wedding dress around the wires for insulation. He then uses the engine to operate a small - model car on a short section of track, paving the way for the later electrification of streetcars. In 1837, Thomas receives the first American patent on an electric machine motor—U.S. Patent No. 132—sharing it with his wife, Emily, and his cousin, Orange Smalley. While their creation runs at up to 600 revolutions per minute, and goes on to power more of Thomas’ inventions such as a printing press, electric telegraph, electric piano, and becomes the basis for the millions of electric motors now used in the United States, this self-educated father of electric motors dies in 1851 at the age of 48, penniless, and unacknowledged until 1910, almost 60 years after his death.

1832 - 1839

The League of Extraordinary Geniuses

These seven years see a wave of electrical innovation. Sometime between 1832 and 1839, Robert Anderson of Scotland straps a non-rechargeable battery and a motor onto a horse-drawn carriage and invents the first crude electric horseless carriage. In 1835, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands, and his assistant Christopher Becker, create a small-scale electrical car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells. Using the physical principles developed by British scientist and innovator, Michael Faraday, Stratingh and Becker construct an electric cart, which is the forerunner of the “modern” electric car.

1837 - 1842

A Model Electric Locomotive from Scotland

Robert Davidson makes a model electric locomotive in 1837, and creates small electric motors based upon his own scientific principles. At the same time, William H. Taylor is in the U.S. building similar engines starting in 1838. Neither man knows of the other. Then in 1842, Davidson's Galvani, a four-wheeled machine powered by zinc-acid batteries (galvanic cells), is tested on the Edinburgh-Glasgow line that September. Although capable of speeds up to 4 mph, it does not transport either passengers or goods.


A 28-year Siege of Electromagnetic Patents

An electrical revolution is sparked and a flood of patents covering electromagnetic machines begins – with almost 100 filed in England alone between 1838 and 1866. Among the inventors pursuing electric motors: James Joule, (English, ab 1838), William Taylor (English, ab 1838), Uriah Clarke (ab 1840), Thomas Wright (ab 1840), Charles Wheatstone, (English, ab 1841), de Harlem (ab 1841), P. Elias (US-American, ab 1842), G. Froment (French, ab 1844), Moses G. Farmer, (US-American, ab 1846), G. Q. Colton (US-American, ab 1847), Thomas Hall (US-American, ab 1850), T. C. Avery (ab 1851), Sören Hjorth, (Danish, ab 1851), Du Moncel (French, ab 1851), Marié-Davy, (French, ab 1855), and Pacinotti, (Italien, ab 1861).

1859 - 1860

French Physicist Invented The First Accumulator

Gaston Planté, a French physicist, invents the first electric storage battery or accumulator. This leads to Planté’s invention of the first rechargeable battery and is the basis for what is used to start our cars today.


Dawning of the Age of Autonomy and “The Secret” of the Self-Propelled Torpedo

Robert Whitehead invents the self-propelled naval torpedo in 1866 by perfecting what retired Naval Engineer, Giovanni Luppis, had created in 1860. Working with his 12 year-old son, John, and a trusted assistant, Annibale Ploech, Whitehead incorporates an unmanned guidance system—consisting of hydrostatic valve and pendulum balance — that maintains depth, and affixes the newly invented gyroscope, which he buys from its creator, Ludwig Obry, for stabilization. His innovations are so revolutionary, Whitehead swears all of his workers to secrecy. The guidance system alone is known as “The Secret,” and the torpedo as The Whitehead.


The First Export: A Two-Stroke of Genius

Automating travel becomes a focus of the latter 19th century with several inventors seeking to create a horseless-engine. Enter Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir, a Belgian engineer who emigrates to France and becomes interested in all things electric. In 1859, he discovers that coal gas and air ignite into fuel via electricity. He develops the first internal combustion engine to burn the mixture via an ignition system utilizing a Ruhmkorff coil and patents it in 1860. The steam-based engine he creates uses a two-stroke system — a power stroke at each end of the cylinder burns the fuel. Lenoir builds the Hippomobile in 1863 to put his invention on the road, using a hydrogen gas fueled, one cylinder internal combustion engine that makes a successful round-trip test drive from Paris to Joinville-le-pont—an 11 km (7 mi) journey that takes ninety minutes each way, more time than it takes to walk. However, the public is enamored and amazed—writer Jules Verne even mentions him in his novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century—and gravitates to Lenoir’s engine in droves. The Hippomobile even gets the attention of Tsar Alexander II, who has one sent to Russia—making it the first export sale of a car in history. By 1865, five-hundred of Lenoir’s engines are being used in Paris alone with 143 of those in Hippomobiles. Lenoir, however, is unsatisfied with the output of his engine and sells his patents to Compagnie parisienne de gaz (Parisian Gas Company) soon after he unveils it in 1863. He moves on to motorboats before ultimately returning to electrical engineering.


Electric Cars Get Attention from Scientific Community

France and Great Britain are the first nations to support the widespread development of electric vehicles. The lack of natural fossil resources in Switzerland result in the tiny European nation's rapid electrification of its railway network to reduce its dependence on foreign energy.

In 1880 , Camille Alphonse Faure patents a method of coating lead plates with a paste of lead oxides, sulphuric acid and water, then curing it gently in a warm, humid atmosphere. This causes the paste to transform and adhere to the lead plate. The entire process converts the paste into electrochemically active material that ends up increasing Gaston Planté’s lead-acid battery capacity. This monster shift leads to the mass production of lead-acid batteries, and a more efficient and reliable model that is successful in early electric cars and still used in automobiles today.

1880 - 1881

Working Three-Wheeled Automobile

Using the new rechargeable battery to boost the efficiency of Siemens’ small electric motor, French inventor and electrical engineer, Gustave Trouvé, attaches the small engine to a tricycle and creates the first electric vehicle. This along with inventing the first outboard engine for a boat, and countless military and medical innovations still in use today, leads to the lifelong bachelor being dubbed “The French Edison.”


It Takes Two to Tango: Parisian Engineer and Carriage Builder Become Inventors

Charles Jeantaud, the Parisian engineer and carriage builder who invented the parallelogram steering linkage, works with Camille Faure, the inventor of the pasted plate battery, to build an electric vehicle in France. The two attach a Gramme motor , and Fulmen battery—Faure’s patent — to a Tilbury style buggy to create their electric car.


Academia Gets Charged-Up and the Tricycle Grows-Up

Two professors from England, William Ayrton & John Perry, build an electric tricycle, which is known as the Ayrton Perry Electric Tricycle. It has two large wheels on the front axle and a small one on the rear, and is the first vehicle with electric lights. The electric tricycle uses ten of Faure’s accumulators. Speed is controlled by switching between each of the 10 cells and the motorized tricycle runs at 1/2 horsepower. Completely electric — unlike Trouve’s car — the two professors drive their invention on Queen Victoria Street in London in October 1882 for the first time.


Electric Cars in Germany

The electric car becomes a favorite for European travel, even though the internal combustion engine is being developed just as intently at the same time. Germany has urban electric vehicles running throughout the country, some of which are designed by Siemens and Halske , like the one seen here motoring on the streets just outside of Berlin, Germany, c.1882.


The Father of the Motorcycle Gets Steamed

It starts as a trip for party favors and ends with the most successful motor vehicle in Europe up to the 20th Century. Comte de Dion is looking for toys to give as prizes at an upcoming ball when he happens upon the Girioux toy shop on Paris’ Boulevard des Italiens in 1881. He is intrigued by a model steam engine and soon discovers it is built by Georges Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux in the back workshop. The craftsmen are earning a pittance for their work — 7 francs a day — and Dion offers them 10 francs each to leave their jobs and create a full-sized steam engine large enough to power a coach. They agree and this leads to both the precursor of the motorcycle of today and the 1884 De Dion Bouton Dos-A-Dos Steam Runabout or “La Marquise,” named after de Dion’s mother. Called a Dos-A-Dos due to its seat styling — it holds the place as the first “family car” with the ability to seat four people, sitting back-to-back or Dos-A-Dos—its boiler is more sophisticated than Cugnot’s 1769 behemoth and can be driven by one person, much like the cars of today. A working 1884 “La Marquise” — the oldest running motor car in the world — sells at Sotheby’s in 2011 for $4.62 million.


Victorian Innovation on Display

Electrical engineer and inventor, Thomas Parker, builds the first truly practical electric car in London. The Victorian era innovator uses high-capacity rechargeable batteries he designs himself to keep it running.


Realizing a Dream

College dropout, Andrew Riker, who tinkers around and builds an electric trike while living in his parents’ basement in 1884 — at the age of 16 — establishes the Riker Electric Motor Co. in Elizabeth Port, New Jersey, at the ripe old age of 20.

1885 - 1888

If Not for a Joyride, an Empire Would Be Naught

Karl Benz is a German engineer who creates what many call the first practical, commercially available, gasoline-powered automobile in the world in 1885. He patents his design in 1886, but public opinion, the Kaiser and even the church are against motorized transportation, which has only shown to work for short distances. Karl’s wife, Bertha , believes in him and his invention, however, and decides to get the word out. On an early morning in August 1888, she leaves a note for her sleeping husband, pushes one of the Motorwagens out of Karl’s workshop with her two teenage sons so as not to wake him, and fires it up out of earshot to drive 66 miles to visit her mother. It is the first long-distance trip ever attempted in a horseless carriage and the journey gets some serious public attention. When Bertha sends a telegram back to let Karl know they’ve arrived safely, he’s already heard through the grapevine. The trio returns a few days later — taking a different route to drum up even more publicity — and share what improvements are needed for the car with Karl. The ploy works and Karl begins selling the model 3 Motorwagen that same summer, which then goes on to be a star at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.


The Buckeye State Takes Electric Over Equines

In October 1888, Akron, Ohio, decides it’s time to go horse-free with public transportation. With an investment of $65,000 — $1.61 million in today’s dollars — John S. Casement, Sylvester T. Everett and F.C. Bangs, all officers of the Akron Street Railway Co., take over the taxi-like horse-drawn carriages known as herdics and convert them to electric. The trio install 39 miles of copper cables, build tracks along Merkt Street to the eastern and western limits of the Midwestern city, and construct a power plant at Canal and Beech Streets in downtown Akron. By 10 October, the first horseless, electric streetcar debuts, creating unprecedented excitement. Within a few weeks, all horse - drawn public carriages are obsolete and by 1927, with the rise in the more popular gas engine, so, too, is the streetcar, the power plant, its tracks and wires.


The Power of Progress

Although Riker’s electric trike is created 4 years earlier, Philip Pratt becomes known as “the father of the American automobile” due to his more public demonstration of an electric tricycle built for him by Fred M. Kimball of the Fred M. Kimball Company in 1888.


Electric Cars Target Women

The quiet and easy operation of electric vehicles are seen as more feminine than the hard-cranking, noisy gas — and steam-powered engines of the era. Advertisements are geared toward women who, although drawn to these models, are steadily becoming just as eager customers as men of all things mobile, including the petrol monsters that are considered more masculine.


Electric Cars Influence Motorsports

Electric vehicles are instrumental in setting land speed records and competing in auto racing from 1896 through to the early 20th century. America becomes a key player in racing while France sets the speed bar for the rest of the world.


A Count Not Counted

The Paris-Rouen, Le Petit Journal Horseless Carriages Contest (Concours du ‘Petit Journal’ Les Voitures sans Chevaux) is considered by many to be the world’s first competitive motor race. The course runs from Paris to Rouen in France on 22 July with four days of vehicle exhibition and qualifying events prior to race day. Organized by the newspaper, Le Petit Journal, the contest includes eight 50 km (31 mi) qualifying events to select the participants in the main 126 km (78 mi) competition. The driver to get across the finish line first—3 minutes and 30 seconds before the closest car — is le Comte de Dion in his innovative steam car de Dion steam tractor towing une Caléche. He is, however, labeled “ineligible” due to his need for a “stoker.”


Success in the U.S.

After a failed attempt in 1887, chemist William Morrison presents a working electric automobile on the streets of Des Moines, Iowa. It is the first successful vehicle of its kind in the United States. The electric six passenger surrey operates on 24 batteries of Morrison’s own design. The motor, mounted under the carriage, runs at about 4 horsepower, reaches speeds between 6 - 12 mph (9.7 - 19.3 km/h), and goes 100 miles (161 km) before needing to recharge.


An Electrifying Fleet on London Streets

Walter Bersey develops London’s first “self-propelled” vehicle with his Bersey Electric Taxi Cabs. Looking like old-fashioned carriages, the yellow cabs move without a horse and reach a maximum of 14.5 km/h (9 mph) when first revealed and finally getting up to speeds of 19.31 km/h (12 mph) via modifications. At their height, the Bersey fleet consists of 75 cabs with a 48.3 km (30 mile) range, which works well in the compact streets of London — a typical trip today is 5.15 km (3.2 miles). The cabs are easily kept running with a station located back at the taxi depot that raises the vehicle up, swaps out an old battery for a new within minutes, then sends it back on the roads. Upkeep is expensive, however, and by 1899, the Bersey cabs are out of business.


Competitive Automobile Racing Gets Switched On

A Riker Electric Motor Company electric car and one from the Electric Carriage and Motor Company come in first and second, respectively, at the first automobile race on a racetrack in America. Held at Narragansett Trotting Park — a dirt oval used for horse racing—in Cranston, Rhode Island on 7 September, seven cars enter with the only two electric models beating the gas-powered others. The five-lap competition takes 15 minutes for the Riker electric to complete and sparks the region’s interest in auto racing for the next 15+ years.


Electrobats on the City Streets

Electric Vehicle Company (E.V.C.) is established on 27 September by Isaac Rice. It’s created as a holding company of battery-powered electric vehicle manufacturers and is made up of several companies. In May, Rice purchases the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company (E.C.W.C.), an electric cab manufacturer, that uses cars built by Henry G. Morris and Pedro G. Salom. Their car, the Electrobat, is considered the first truly useful electric automobile in the U.S. E.V.W.C. is a pioneering taxi service that starts up in Manhattan, New York, in January and has quick service stations that do fast repair work and battery change-outs. The cars are leased, not sold.


Mass Production on American Soil

The Pope Manufacturing Company, successful bicycle makers in Connecticut, enter into the electric vehicle business. The family owned company puts Hiram Percy Maxim in charge of the Motor Vehicle Department of their fledgling Electric Vehicle Division and begin cranking out battery-operated cars for the masses.


The First Front-Wheel Drive Sparks a Dynasty

A 23 year-old Austrian with little formal engineering training — but an intense interest in automotive building and design — creates the first front-wheel drive vehicle that happens to be electric and becomes the basis for the first gas/electric hybrid. His name is Ferdinand Porsche and he creates the Lohner-Porsche that has two in-wheel electric motors embedded in the front wheel hubs and uses on-board batteries to power it. The front-wheel drive increases efficiency by lowering mechanical friction, streamlining the electric vehicle by getting rid of a gearbox, clutch, drive shaft and any excess equipment. Soon, Porsche adds two more in-wheel motors with brakes on each to create one of the first four wheel drive cars and the first with a four wheel brake system.


Electric Establishes the Land Speed Record

On 18 December, Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat sets the first true land speed record for a vehicle in a Jeantud Duc electric car in Acheres, Yvelines, France. It is part of a competition organized by French automobile magazine La France Automobile. The Count travels at an average speed of 63.13 km/h (39 mph), making him the fastest man alive in a horseless carriage.


The Red Devil and The Count: Racing’s First Rivalry

From January to April, Camille Jenatzy, nicknamed Le Diable Rouge (“The Red Devil”) for his red beard, and Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat compete for the land speed record in electric cars. The Count breaks his own record on 17 January by reaching 70.33 km/h (43.7 mph). Jenatzy throws down the gauntlet by passing him on 27 January with a speed of 80.35 km/h (49.93 mph). Chasseloup-Laubat comes right back with 92.7 km/h (57.6 mph) in March. The Red Devil builds a new car—the first motor vehicle to be created from the ground up with the sole purpose of setting a record—and names it Le Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied). He takes it to the road on 29 April and takes the record away from The Count by driving 105.9 km/h (65.8 mph). He holds this until it is broken by Léon Serpollet in 1902 then goes on to win the Gordon Bennett Cup in Athy, Ireland, the predecessor of the Grand Prix, in 1903.


Fast Progress Through Snow and Rain and Heat and Gloom of Night

On 2 July, Buffalo’s superintendent of city delivery becomes the first person to test the benefits of using an electric car over that of the usual horse-drawn wagon to gather mail. He picks up packages and letters from 40 post boxes in an hour and a half—less than half the time it takes the wagon. He does this with the help of an electric Columbia provided and driven by an electric car promoter. Slowly, other cities test out the electric horseless carriage for mail delivery and collection until it becomes the vehicle of choice.


F.R. Wood and Son Power - up to Save the People

The century pulls to a close with the invention of the first motor-powered ambulance, which is electric. Built by F. R. Wood & Son, well-known carriage builders and creators of some of the most elegant, highest end chassis for the likes of Rolls Royce, Deusenberg and Mercedes, the Wood Electric Ambulance is first bequeathed to the Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, then to St. Vincent’s in New York City in 1900. It weighs 4000 pounds (1814.37 kg) and is powered with 2 electric horsepower (1.5 kWH) motors on the rear axle. Introducing this motorized version of a medical vehicle is revolutionary and life-changing.


Russia Goes ’Cuckoo’ for First Electric Vehicle

Hippolyte Vladimirovich Romanov builds Russia’s first domestic electric car in Saint Petersburg. The mechanical engineer designs the car based on the style of the British cab of the time with an enclosed carriage where two passengers sit while the driver steers in the open compartment behind them. Famously known as “cuckoo,” it weighs 750 kg (1653.5 pounds) with batteries accounting for less than half the weight. The cuckoo’s closest competitor is the French and much heavier La Jamais Contente (The Never Satisfied) built by Camille Jenatzy, which weighs 1450 kg (3196.7 pounds) with the bulk of that taken up by batteries.


An Electrified (and Leaden) Monopoly

Under Hiram Percy Maxim’s leadership, the Electric Vehicle Division of Pope Manufacturing has now produced over 500 motorized cars. It is spun off and turned into the independent Columbia Automobile Company. By the end of the year, it is bought by the Electric Vehicle Company (E.V.C.), now the largest manufacturer of cars in America. No longer in the hands of Isaac Rice, E.V.C. has been taken over by William C. Whitney, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Anthony N. Brady, and P. A. B. Widener to form the “Lead Cab Trust” with the goal of monopolizing the taxi cab business by putting their electric vehicles in major cities in the United States. They start in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston. By 1900, however, the plan has failed due to competition from gas-powered cars, inability to sell enough electric automobiles for taxis, and the push for a monopoly itself.