A Timeline of Car History

Humans have been thinking about different ways to travel for thousands of years. As time has gone on, they have devised increasingly more effective and efficient methods of travel. The automobile made a dramatic change in the way people travel. There is no simple answer to the question of who invented the automobile and when. It has been a work in progress, developing over the past several hundred years. To better understand the history of the automobile, it could be helpful to look at a time line and see how all the pieces fit together. This time line describes the invention of the automobile and its development with a focus on American automobiles in the twentieth century.

1478 – Leonardo da Vinci invents the self-propelled car. This happens many years before anyone else is even thinking about automobiles. However, the car remains a sketch on paper and is never actually made. This self-propelled car is not a car like the ones we see today. It is more similar to a cart and does not have a seat. In 2004, a replica of da Vinci’s car is finally crafted. It can be seen on display at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy.

1769 – Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot builds the first self-propelled road vehicle in France. This vehicle is a tractor for the French army. It has three wheels and moves at about 2.5 miles per hour.

1789 – American Oliver Evans receives the first US patent for a steam-powered land vehicle.

1801 – In Great Britain, inventor Richard Trevithick builds a steam powered road carriage. It is considered to be the first tramway locomotive. It is designed for use on road, not railroad.

1807 – An internal combustion engine which uses a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is invented by Francois Isaac de Rivaz in Switzerland. He also designs a car for the engine, the first automobile powered by internal combustion. However, his design turns out to be very unsuccessful.

1823 – English engineer and inventor Samuel Brown invents an internal combustion engine. It has separate combustion and working cylinders, and is used to power a vehicle.

1832 – Robert Anderson invents the first crude electric carriage in Scotland. It is powered by non-rechargeable primary power cells.

1863 – Belgian engineer Jean-Joseph-Etienne Lenoir invents the “horseless carriage.” It uses an internal combustion engine and can move at about 3 miles per hour. This is the first commercially successful internal combustion engine.

1867 – German Nikolaus August Otto improves on the internal combustion engine. His engine is the first to efficiently burn fuel directly in a piston chamber.

1870 – Julius Hock, of Vienna, builds the first internal combustion engine running on gasoline.

1877- Otto builds the four-cycle internal combustion engine, which is the prototype for modern car engines.

August 21, 1879 – American inventor George Baldwin files the first U.S. Patent for an automobile. This invention is more similar to a wagon with an internal combustion engine.

1885 – German engine designer Karl Benz builds the first true automobile powered by a gasoline engine. It has three wheels and looked similar to a carriage.

1886 – In Michigan, Henry Ford builds his first automobile.

1886 – Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach invent the first four-wheeled, four-stroke engine in Germany. It is known as the “Cannstatt-Daimler.”

1876 – American George Baldwin Selden invents a combined internal combustion engine with a carriage. It is never manufactured.

1893 – Brothers Frank and Charles Edgar Duryea invent the first successful gas-powered car in the United States.

1896 – The Duryea brothers start the first American car manufacturing company in Springfield, Massachusetts. It is called Motor Wagons.

1900- A steering wheel is designed to replace the steering tiller.

1906 – Alabama sets a state maximum speed limit of 8 miles per hour.

1913 – Ford’s Model T production rockets from 7.5 cars per hour to 146 cars per hour, thanks to the utilization of the assembly line.

1924 – The car radio is introduced.

1940 – The first four-wheel drive, all-purpose vehicle is designed for the U.S. Military. It becomes known as the Jeep.

1956 – The Interstate Highway Act creates a network of highways which connects all parts of the United States.

1962 – Wisconsin becomes the first state to create a seat belt law. It calls for the seatbelt to be a standard requirement in automobiles.

1974 – Air bags become a new car safety option.

1984 – New York state becomes the first state with a law requiring the use of seatbelts.

1995 – The car Global Positioning System, or GPS, is introduced.

1996 – Due to the rising cost of gasoline and impact of global climate change, zero-emission electric vehicles come back to auto showrooms. The first electric vehicles had been designed in the early 1800s.

1997 – The first Toyota Prius is sold in Japan.

Late 2000s – Many vehicle manufacturers begin to abandon once popular gas-guzzling SUVs for more efficient vehicles due to environmental concerns and the recession.

The automobile has a long and detailed history. Please visit the following links for further reading.

Automobile History from the University of Colorado at Boulder

Who Invented the Automobile?

Automobile – Time Line

Early Cars: Fact Sheet for Children

Henry Ford Changes the World, 1908

The Automobile and the Environment in American History

Rise of the Automobile

The Showroom of Automotive History

The Museum of Automobile History

Automobile Culture

California Automobile Museum

Car Facts for Kids

Ford in Europe: The First Hundred Years

Car History 4U