OF THE AMERICAN AUTOMOBILE
Introducing America's Most Modern
Automobile - In 1773
By Jim Hinckley
The exact year that the fertile imagination of Oliver Evans first
spawned the idea of a land vehicle propelled without the use of horses
is unknown. However, as early as 1773 he wrote that, “There are
witnesses living, to whom I communicated my intentions of applying my
improved Steam Engine to propel carriages."
The Revolutionary War served as only a temporary distraction for
Oliver’s growing obsession with creating a steam powered carriage. On
May 19, 1787 he displayed a working model, and submitted plans as well
as drawings, to the Maryland House of Delegates.
However, even though a patent was approved shortly after, Oliver was not
alone in his quest to sever the limitations imposed upon man by Dobbins.
Isaac Briggs, John Fitch, James Rumsey, Nathan Read, and John Stevens,
to name but a few, were engaged in similar pursuits.
With the establishment of the United States Patent Office all states
were required to relinquish all patents and inventors were compelled to
reapply. Inventor Nathan Read of Warren, Massachusetts, a professor at
Harvard, as well as member of Congress and judge, submitted the first
American patent for a self propelled vehicle.
Oliver Evans, engraving by W.G. Jackman
As an interesting historic footnote, the patent was approved on August
26, 1791. The approving signatures are Thomas Jefferson and George
Still it was Evans that stood at the forefront of development and
technological breakthrough. By 1792, he had built and tested horizontal
and vertical reciprocating engines, and developed a revolutionary
The poison for most visionary minds is rejection and that was in ample
supply when it came to steam powered vehicles in the closing years of
the 18th century. Nathan Read displayed a crude prototype to the
Secretary of Defense and Secretary of War but they vetoed the idea of
committing government funds to research and development.
John Fitch of New Jersey, one of the first to successfully utilize steam
propulsion for boats met with similar rejection. In a fit of despondency
he committed suicide shortly after moving to Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Oliver methodically developed his patented steam engine, and
a wide array of applications for it. However, in his mind each success
was merely a stepping stone on the path to creating a steam powered land
His development of steam powered grain mills revolutionized that
industry. His book, The Young Mill-wright and Miller’s Guide, was
reprinted in fifteen editions, and a French translation.
On September 26, 1804, he took a major step toward transforming the
dream into a reality with the proposition of building steam wagons for
the Lancaster Turnpike Company. Simultaneously he was seeking investors,
at $30.00 each, to fund the creation of the Experimental Company for the
manufacture of steam powered "road carts."
1805 Amphibious steam-powered carriage and
paddle boat designed by American inventor Oliver Evans
proposals fell on deaf ears but Oliver was patient and determined. When
commissioned by the city of Philadelphia to build a steam powered river
dredge, he took the liberty of equipping it with wheels to demonstrate the
value of having a dredge that could be relocated under its own power, even
if the top speed was four miles per hour.
Meanwhile, Colonel John H. Stevens, a hero of the Revolutionary War turned
his attentions toward development of a steam propelled vehicle. His first
crude model took the streets in 1802.
extensive experimentation he determined that regardless of vehicle
advancement, road conditions were too primitive to make such vehicles
feasible. Interestingly enough, this same viewpoint would dominate the
thoughts of early automotive proponents a century later.
Still, Stevens persisted with experimentation and development. In 1826, he
built a circular exhibition track in Hoboken, New Jersey upon which to
display his steam powered vehicles.
the same year, Samuel Morey, a visionary and prolific inventor, obtained a
patent for a new type of engine. Described as a gas and vapor engine, the
two-cycle unit utilized a primitive carburetor, electric spark, and water
1830 a veritable explosion in development of steam powered “road wagons”,
and other experimentation, led the U.S. Congress to initiate feasibility
studies, as well as discuss possible taxation and regulation. A new age was
the 1840s, research and development into electric motors added a new wrinkle
to the self propelled vehicle debate that had proponents for the use of
steam, compressed air, and various gases. It was Moses G. Farmer, in 1847
that first developed an operational prototype using electric motors applied
to the wheels.
his heels came Professor Charles Page who built a revolutionary vehicle that
utilized a 16 horse power motor driven by 100 Grove cells. To demonstrate
its feasibility as well as potential, he would carry twelve people on the
streets of Washington D.C at speeds exceeding ten miles per hour.
Illustration of Oliver Evans' patent of a
However, it was Stuart Perry that, with the luxury of hindsight, we now can
see as being the most prophetic with his inventions. In 1847 he built a
two-cycle engine that used turpentine for fuel, and that was self started
with compressed air.
Still, as the advertisement for the 1903 Jaxon noted, “Steam is easy to
harness and is easily understood.” As a result, for most of the 19th century
steam propulsion dominated thinking as well as development in regard to self
Ushering in the automobile industry was Sylvester Hayward Roper. His first
prototype debuted in 1859 and in the next twenty years ten vehicles, each
more advanced than the last would roll from his shop. As early as 1863 he
developed a two passenger vehicle with a two-horsepower steam engine and
coal fired boiler suitable for urban usage.
the velocipede craze exploded in the early 1870s, Roper developed the first
motorcycle. One of these was driven to a then astounding speed of one mile
in two minutes.
Austen, or Professor Austen as he chose to be called, was cut from the cloth
of P.T. Barnum. Throughout the country at fairs and other exhibitions he
attracted tremendous crowds with the pitting of Roper’s cars, and
motorcycles, against horses.
the world stood poised with one foot on the throttle and one in the stirrup,
the fascination with the automobile unleashed a torrent of eccentrics and
charlatans. Perhaps the most intriguing manifestations of the former were
the creations crafted by proponents of spring powered vehicles, as in spring
powered like a watch.
Further encouraging the experimental fervor were financial incentives. In
1875, the Wisconsin legislature proposed a $10,000 reward to any resident
that could produce “a machine propelled by steam or other motive agent as a
practical substitute for use of horses or other animals on highway or farm.”
stage was now set for Ransom E. Olds, the Duryea bothers, and Elwood Haynes.
About the Author:
Jim Hinckley is an award winning author and photographer, and an
official contributor to Legends Of America through a partnership developed
in October 2012. Hinckley is a former Associate Editor of Cars and Parts
Magazine, and author of multiple books, including several on Route 66.
His latest "The Route 66 Encyclopedia" is available with autograph via
Route 66 Chronicles, Jim's blog.
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