Automotive pioneers, visionaries, and eccentrics shared a common threat
during the last decades of the 19th century and that was the wrath of
neighbors and fellow citizens. Manifestations of their innovative
efforts smoked, clanked, and startled horses into stampedes of
destruction as well as mayhem.
For an automobilist, as they were called then, to have the support of
friends and family was quite rare. However, for those afforded such a
luxury the road to success was far less bumpy or perilous.
Counted among these fortunate few was Ransom Eli Olds, a member of a
second generation family of developers of steam engines. In the employ
of his father at P.F. Olds & Sons, Ransom initiated work on his first
"automobile" in mid 1886. Completed the following year, the cumbersome
three wheeled contraption was deemed a success in the simple fact that
it ran under its own power.
In 1890, Olds commenced construction of a four-wheel model using
cannibalized parts from the initial endeavor. Even though he found the
completed vehicle to be unsatisfactory, Olds sold it in 1893 to the
Francis Times Company, a London based enterprise that shipped the car to
their Bombay, India office, for $400. Olds had created the first
exported American automobile.
As steam power had a lengthy history of development and perfection, Olds
and many other automotive pioneers saw in it the key to a future of road
travel freed from the constraints of the horse. However, even though the
idea had languished since the initial enthusiasm sparked by issuance of
a patent for a revolutionary internal combustion engine to George Bailey Brayton in 1872, and construction of a omnibus utilizing that engine in
1879, more than a few automotive proponents saw the future in these
smoking, clanking, oily engines.
A third group of visionaries worshiped at the altar of the amp and volt.
The motto of the electric disciple, as voiced by Henry G. Morris was
that, "You’ll never get people to sit over an explosion."
Morris was one half of a visionary team and Pedro G. Salom was the
other. Together they crafted electric automobiles in the 1890s that
pioneered many of the attributes heralded in the Chevrolet Volt and
In spite of the various manifestations of genius each vehicle produced
represented, regardless of propulsion method, they were still nothing
more than experiments. Still, by the early 1890’s there was more than
enough public interest in the automobile to stir the American
entrepreneurial spirit and as a result, a few mechanical whiz kids began
to wonder if there might be a profit to be made from the horseless
Exactly who created the first viable automobile for sale to the general
public in the United States is a matter of conjecture fueled by thin
paper trails obscured by the mists of time. Compounding the difficulty
in unraveling this historical mystery is the simple fact that apparently
several people had the idea at the same time.
J. Frank and Charles E. Duryea of Springfield,