One Foot in the Stirrup and One on the Throttle

The Race to Gain Public Interest in Motor Vehicles

by Jim Hinckley

The passing of the horse. JS, Pughe, J Ottmann Lith Co NY, 1899

The passing of the horse. JS, Pughe, J Ottmann Lith Co NY, 1899

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.

1903 Jaxon Steam Car

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 Toyota Prius.

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 carriage.

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, Massachusetts initiated plans to build an automobile that could be sold to the general public in 1891, completed a relatively reliable experimental model two years later, and commenced production shortly after. As an historical footnote in the mid 1890s, a Duryea Motor Wagon was such a curiosity it received top billing over the albino and fat lady at the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

While the Duryea brothers often receive the nod for being the first to “mass produce” automobiles for sale, there are many, many others who were also building cars for sale during this period. Indications are that Henry Nadig built and sold several cars that utilized an internal combustion engine in about 1893. Charles Black was also building and selling cars (at least two of them) in about 1893.


Peabody & Stearns: Machinery Hall, Worlds Columbian Exposition (Worlds Fair), Chicago, 1893. Photo courtesy of Boston College.

Surprisingly, in spite of this interest and the issuance of more than 200 patents pertaining to horseless carriages, automobile displays at the Machinery Hall of the World’s Columbian Exposition of Chicago that opened on May 1, 1893, were few and far between. Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft had a vehicle on display resultant of its import by William Steinway. A Benz also was on display.

In the Electrical Building two electric vehicles were displayed. Another electric was the five seat omnibus used to transport visitors to various locations on the fairgrounds.

There was interest in automobiles. There were visionaries who believed these horseless carriages were the wave of the future. What was missing was the spark, a catalyst that would bridge the gap between theory and practicality, and between experimental and profitable. Enter H.H. Kohlsaat, one of the exhibitions officials, an ardent proponent of the fledgling automobile, and publisher of The Chicago Times Herald.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *