Skip to content

History Hits: First Powered, Wheeled, Creation a.k.a the First Car


While it may seem like may itself have turned into history over the past few weeks, I merely had to take a break from writing to do real-life, boring, adult-ing stuff. To celebrate a return to content, I decided to go way, way, back with this week’s History Hits. In fact, I decided we should look at the first self-propelled thing that didn’t have a beating heart. I use the word thing, because as you will see these early creations cannot be described as vehicles or anything similarly useful. Many, like myself before researching this article, would probably assume that this would be a pretty cut and dry piece of history. As it turned out to be quite a contentious topic, I will actually be detailing three men and their creations, ranging from the 15th century, to the 17th century, before finally ending in the 18th century, much closer to where I expected to begin.

The earliest of these creations (hint, it isn’t the image used as the header) that had the potential to move under its own power was–possibly unsurprisingly–sketched by the famous Italian-born Leonardo da Vinci. Sketched in 1478, the below creation was designed purely to create wonder and merriment.
The sketch shows a clockwork-powered carriage, with five-wheels, the front being used to steer.

The design shows a geared-carriage, with programmable steering by means of pre-placed wooden blocks on the steering mechanism. Power was provided by a pair of springs located in cylindrical-like containers in the frame. These springs were “charged” by the gears placed on top of the frame, merely by pulling the wheels and gears in the opposite direction of travel, much like a modern Power Wheels or other wind-up car toy. Oddly enough, the programmable steering could only be set to turn right, meaning straight courses would have been a better bet. While there has been no evidence to show that it left the pages of da Vinci’s sketchbook during his life, there is no doubt that it would have worked, as it was successfully recreated with the aid of computer design software and built to scale by Italian researchers, using materials available to da Vinci and his builders.

Da Vinci's car
The recreated car.

Nearly two centuries after da Vinci sketched his self-propelled festival toy, another self-propelled toy was designed, although this time a world away. In the 1670’s, a Flemish (think Belgium) Jesuit missionary named Ferdinand Verbiest was employed by the Qing Dynasty as a general smart-guy. As he knew six languages, he filled this role well, and when he finished revamping the Chinese astronomical society, he spent his time teaching and entertaining the Emperor.

The man himself, telescope and all.

In his efforts to entertain the Emperor, Fr. Verbiest designed a self-propelled automation, very similar to da Vinci’s in appearance. Featuring four supporting wheels, and one wheel for steering, the five-wheeled car was powered by steam rather than stored kinetic energy. The springs and gearing of da Vinci’s car were replaced by a steam chamber, which directed its steam into a geared system, which then powered the wheels.

Jalopnik car
As the design above shows, it is very simple.

Again, it is not known whether this automaton was actually built, however I am of the belief that it is so simple that it would have been. Assuming the Qing dynasty possessed the metallurgy required to make a significantly strong, spouted vessel (which it is safe to assume), everything else is simple, and straightforward. Again, as the device only measured about four feet, no human could actually sit on it. Rather than being designed as a tool, the Verbiest “car” was designed as a toy for the emperor, to create awe and wonderment.

Leaving the realm of ‘maybe made’s’ and designs, the first documented self-propelled vehicle was made a further century after Verbiest put his pen to paper. In 1769 a small self-propelled model was constructed by a French army captain named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, so that he could prove his concept to the superiors inside of procurement. Called the fardier a vapeur–steam dray in English–Cpt. Cugnot was  awarded permission to pursue a full-scale model.

Cugnot header
A period drawing of one the most notable…achievements…of the ‘Cugnot Car’.

The name of the vehicle hints broadly at its use, as a dray is a two-wheeled horse cart used to transport heavy material like artillery or other supplies. Cugnot’s creation was designed in theory to replace such mechanisms, bringing the weapons of war to battle in a more advanced manner. Whereas Verbiest’s vehicle used an open boiler and funneled the steam into a wheel-like gear, Cugnot used a much more modern steam-powered piston to generate power. To turn the vertical force of a steam piston into rotational force for the drive wheel–yes, it was single-rear wheel drive–Cugnot had to use an innovative ratchet-type gear mechanism.

Sadly, going full-scale did not work out for Cpt. Cugnot. While able to move under its own power, reportedly while seating four passengers, the vehicle was not a success. Not only was the top speed abysmal–less than 2.5mph–the boiler had to be re-lit every hour, which took 30 minutes each time. On top of that, control was so lacking, that even at such low speeds, the creation lost control and broke through a wall at the Arsenal. If true, then not only can the good Captain be credited with the first automobile, he can also be credited with the first automobile accident.

Cugnot car
Cugnot’s car on display.

While I think it is likely Verbiest’s toy for the Qing Emperor would have been built, as there exists no evidence, Captain Cugnot of France has to be credited with the first self-propelled vehicle. As the Captain’s prototype has been on display since creation, his achievement is undisputed. Have any questions or comments? Leave them below as well as hitting that like and share button. If you have something you would want a History Hit on, feel free to leave suggestions as well.

Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

One thought on “History Hits: First Powered, Wheeled, Creation a.k.a the First Car Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: