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How the Chinese, French, Swiss, Germans, and Brits Helped Shape the Greatest American Innovation of All Time

Did you know that the first car ride and the first car crash happened on the same day?

The history of the car is, like all innovations, a lot more roundabout than you may think, and it doesn’t have a solid “start” date. But like all empires, technologies, and ideas that change the world, the automobile had humble beginnings.

Western Civilization’s Great Invention Began…in the East

For time’s sake, we’ll skip over the invention of the wheel and the use of the chariot and then the carriage. Let’s start with the industrial revolution.

Machines were moving their way throughout Europe. Factories began springing up everywhere, and the great migration from the countryside farms to the world’s largest city centers—London, Paris, New York, and more—began with a promise of a financially secure life. Urbanization was a lot of things to a lot of people (Charles Dickens wrote all about its pleasantness in his book Hard Times), but it showed the world an important truth: we can become more efficient when we use machines.

It’s a truth that has been around for a long time—Gutenburg’s press, the cotton gin, even plows and swords and arrows all show that the human body can only take us so far, but the human mind has infinite capacity to manipulate the world around us. Though weapons had been mass-produced and farming equipment was necessary to life and commerce, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that the idea began to dawn that we can really create machines for everything. If we can make books at break-neck speed with a press, then we can make textiles, too. If we can make textiles, then we can package and distribute and sell food. If we can distribute food, then we can improve transportation.

So where does China come in? With a Flemish bloke by the name of Ferdinand Verbeist who in 1672 was a Jesuit missionary in China. 1672 predates the Industrial Revolution by a solid two hundred years, and China is several thousand miles away from the West. But Verbeist created a steam-powered, 65-centimeter-long model of a motorized chariot for the Emperor—it was one heck of a party gift. But the machine was never produced on full scale, and it would be forgotten until the Industrial Revolution when the need to travel great distances in a short amount of time resurrected the idea of a horseless
carriage.

Then Came the French, the Swiss, and a German Guy Named Benz

Thanks to some seriously tragic events in a city called Verdun in World War I, the French have had a bad rap for military or innovation for about the past 100 years. But don’t let silly prejudices and misunderstood history get in the way—the French have been a tour de force for the West for a very long time. The creation of the first functional automobile belongs on French soil.

Like Verbeist, the French were a little ahead of their time. Nicolas–Joseph Cugnot created a steam-powered engine in 1769 (that’s before the American Colonies even became the great United States of America, mind you, and well before the Industrial Revolution). He installed his engine on two tractors for the French army and on a couple of boats. But the technology wasn’t quite right, and the motor was of little practical use. From there, we follow a line of French, Swiss, and Germans until in 1879, Karl Benz (as in Dailmer-Benz and Mercedes-Benz) patented the first “official” modern automobile.

The World Was Finally Ready

Benz’s machine, inspired by all the iterations, trials, errors, and failures before him, suddenly became indispensible. Mass production, copycat designs, and concurrent inventions were hot on the heels of Benz’s patent.

Steam power gave way to various combustion engines. In 1893, the first gasoline-powered vehicle made its first ride in the Unite States. In 1897, another German by the name of Rudolph Diesel invented the engine that drives Mack trucks—the diesel engine. Steam and electricity battled for dominance in the engine until gasoline won out in the 1910s.

Industry, Economy, and American Ingenuity

Even if Americans haven’t always been the first to create something, they seem to have an uncanny ability to recognize great ideas and make them better. In 1902, after decades of invention and improvement over in Europe, a man named Ransom Olds in Lansing, Michigan, simplified automobile production and began production line manufacturing for his brand of car—the Oldsmobile. (As a side note, would to heaven that the man had a different last name; a car by the name of “old” anything has a hard time convincing a market of its power for innovation.)

Ransom Old’s assembly line manufacturing was neither new nor unique, but it was the first to create new technology at a relatively low cost.

Then in 1914, Henry Ford hits the stage. He’s not the first to create the car. He’s not the first to create an assembly line. But where Ransom Olds’ vehicles took 12.5 man hours to assemble, Henry Ford could put together a Model T every 15 minutes. Ford also had very stringent safety regulations, making his factories both efficient and safe, and his product high quality and low cost—a rare combination even for today’s standards.

Thanks to incredible innovation for decades and even centuries before him, Henry Ford was able to realize his greatest achievement: making the automobile available to the masses.

“Any Color as Long as It’s Black”

Henry Ford didn’t have a particular affinity for the color black—it was just the color that dried the fastest and could therefore keep his assembly line rolling. But whether the decision was prescience, brilliant business, or simple pragmatism, Ford expanded his operations into Europe with Ford France, Ford Britain, Ford Germany, and Ford Denmark.

Rolling the Stone Further Down the Hill

And the rest is, well, history. Looking back, we can easily spend our time wondering what our world would be like if electric cars had beat out gasoline cars at the turn of the century. We can marvel at Ford’s ingenuity and watch unions slowly deconstruct the low cost without sacrificing quality. And we can sit back and do nothing about it.

Or we can do something about it. History is the best teacher, and she often has a surprise or two waiting for those who want to find them.

For more history and a general overview of the people, places, and patents that gave us the two cars sitting in our garages today, visit Wikipedia. For more, I suggest you hunt. You’ll love what you’re about to find.