History Hits: Early History of the Steering Wheel
For many of us, certain devices or inventions go together hand in hand. Shoes and laces, the TV and the remote control, and shampoo and conditioner, are all examples of such relationships. In the automotive world, the least-thought of relationship is that between the steering wheel and the car. Most of us—myself included until recently—assume that the invention of the car went together with the invention of the steering wheel. While I cannot speak on the timeline of the invention of shoes and laces, the car and steering wheel are one such ‘obvious’ relationship which are separated by years in their introduction.
The first car is hard to pin down. People began experimenting with gasoline engines and existing carriages in one-off home-builds in the 1870’s, and steam-carriages existed in concept form since the early 1800’s, and were becoming commercially viable—at least in France—also in the early 1870’s. However, the first gasoline-powered automobile, designed from the ground-up, and with viable production, was the Benz Patent-Motorwagen designed and built by Karl Benz of Mercedes-Benz fame.
Introduced in 1886, with an 1885 patent file date, about 25 were built over a 7-year period. Pictured above, the Motorwagen is not wholly recognizable as something we would today call a ‘car’. Despite the lack-luster looks, with .75hp, two seats, and costing about $1,000 (1886 values), the Motorwagen was the technological gasoline-powered marvel of its day. With all of the technological innovation present on the Benz, one item conspicuous in its absence is the steering wheel.
Karl Benz, like other early innovators in automobiles, took his example for control from the other main artificial means of controllable transportation: sailing craft. A sailboats direction can be controlled through a device called a tiller. This is generally a stick of wood at the rear, connected to the rudder, allowing control of direction via moving the stick—and therefore the rudder—in the proper direction. For automobiles, the tiller generally controlled the front wheel, and can be seen above as the black bar protruding from the front of the Motorwagen.
This set-up featured certain unavoidable flaws: first and foremost, tiller-controlled vehicles primarily work with an uneven number of wheels. As Jeremey Clarkson famously demonstrates with such a layout, as speed grows, not only does loss of control occur, the vehicle can become downright dangerous. Having the control levels—or lack thereof—a tiller provides, promises an even more interesting experience.
Again, following the evolution outlined by sailing ships and steam ships, as speed grows a tiller becomes inadequate, and a solution had to be found. This was copied from nautical development of the day, and wheels began to be introduced. Whereas the first automobile can generally be credited to Karl Benz and the already-mentioned Motorwagen, the first steering wheel is not so simple. Steam cars began featuring steering wheels, and even steering racks, in 1875 with the introduction of the French La’ Mancelle, created by Amedee Bollee.
As you can see above, La’ Mancelle cannot truly be called a car, but is rather more of a ‘steam machine’, requiring multiple operators, and featuring heavy construction—this light version of Bollee’s creation was reportedly 2,750kg.
Steam went the way of the dinosaur, and as such having the genesis of the automobile steering wheel cannot really begin with it: it should really be a gasoline powered car. While the Motorwagen, and other early gasoline cars used tillers, the idea for the steering wheel paired with a gasoline motor begins 20 years before the introduction of the Motorwagen, with a man named George Seldon.
Seldon was not an engineer, nor a mechanic, nor a particularly inventive man. He was, however, a very opportunistic patent lawyer. Sensing that travel trends were shifting throughout the world, Seldon filed a patent in 1879 for a “Road Engine” as he termed it. This patent features a quasi-tiller system in operation, however the user controls took the form of a wheel. As pictured below, figures ‘G’ and ‘H’ represent the steering gear, with ‘G’ being a ‘fifth wheel’ as Seldon termed it, controlling the two front wheels direction, and ‘H’ being the steering wheel a driver would use.
Despite not being issued until 1895—late in the steering wheel game—the early file date certainly makes it the theoretical leader in the steering wheel game. The word ‘theoretical’ is important because it was not until Seldon was using his patents to sue automakers such as Ford and others in the early 1900’s that Seldon actually built a car off of his patent: it briefly worked. This patent featured obvious deficits, with a less-than-optimum fifth wheel steering system, featuring a non-tilted steering wheel.
Further developments would come from the birthplace of most new things in the automotive world: the racing world. Two racers, Alfred Vacheron in 1894, and Arthur Krebs in 1898, helped pioneer the use of the steering wheel to replace the tiller. Alfred Vacheron modified a Panhard and Lavassor model—one of those ‘garage builds’ mentioned earlier—for a Paris-Rouen Race, becoming the first man to turn a gasoline powered car using a wheel. Vacheron’s wheel was similar to La’ Mancelle’s wheel in that it was flat facing, and it was not until 1898 when Arthur Krebs modified another Panhard and Lavassor model with a tilted steering wheel for a Paris-Amsterdam race.
These pioneers were the three earliest innovators regarding steering wheels and gasoline powered automobiles. This does not mean that there are not others trying to lay claim to the title of ‘First’. In England, Charles Rolls was the first to import a steering wheel equipped car (another Panhard), and is often cited as bringing the innovation to the then-important British motor industry. The Packard Motor Company claims on their websites history that the 1901 Model C Packard was the first to feature a steering wheel, while Ohio bicycle manufacturer Alexander Winton is credited with creating the first mass-market steering wheel equipped car in 1898. Panhard-Lavassor also lays claim to the first steering wheel, although they purchased a patent and co-designed a model with the already mentioned Arthur Krebs, who himself was not even first, but simply among one of the first three.
While this race for the first steering wheel was going on, the various countries in the world had to figure out the rules for cars. In the context of steering wheels and controlling a car, this required deciding not only where a car should be when driving on a road, as well as where the driver and their wheel should be placed in the car. Just as technological breakthroughs were aided by that which came before it—sailing—so too did lawmakers benefit from tradition that preceded automobiles. This tradition varies country to country. For instance, England drives on the left due to medieval tradition traceable to the gentry and knighthood of the country. With most people right-handed, this was the hand most swordsmen were trained to use. When the sword is not in use, it is worn on the non-dominant side, usually the left, to allow for easy, quick drawing.
To keep their swords from prying hands, and to allow for unobstructed drawing of said sword, the English nobility, knighthood, soldiers, and generally everybody used the left-hand side of any track or road. Because the English love tradition, this persists to this day, and because the English loved exporting their traditions, much of the old dominions still drive on the left—an exception to this is Egypt which spent much of its early-modern developmental period under Napoleon’s France.
Napoleon and his Continental System helped export the French road mannerisms to the rest of the Continent. For the majority of their early history, the French copied the English. Due to the slightly more separate nobility system in France, this necessitated that while the sword-bearing nobles got the left side of the road, the peasants got the right. While I am sure this caused numerous traffic jams wherever nobles went, this did not last past the storming of the Bastille.
Once the nobility had been rebelled against by the peasantry, the surviving nobles learned quickly to abandon the left in order to not mark themselves as a target of the masses anger. Gradually, this unspoken change of road-side became legal, and Napoleon brought this system with him on his conquests. For the most part, the double whammy of the storming of the Bastille, as well as Napoleon’s prolific conquests, sealed Europe’s choice in road-side.
America featured an interesting evolution in its choice of road-side, partly decided by necessity, and partly decided by rebel angst. While a colony of England, the English practices were enforced. However, it soon became apparent that not only did America have larger, wider roads, the abundance of goods necessitated larger carts to transport them in an efficient manner.
When a horse-drawn carriage has multiple horses next to each other, the driver tends to sit on the left side of the cart to keep his right hand free to whip. With the large carts of America, cart-drivers wished to be able to have the assurance of being able to see the passengers and obstacles passing nearest to them. Because the already drove from the left-hand side of the cart, this required putting those things on the left. This is accomplished by driving on the right. Not only was this practical, but it was the opposite of the not-loved British, which eased public approval.
With deciding on what side of the road to drive upon, a country essentially decided it’s steering wheel placement in the car as well. A 1908 Ford Model T sales pamphlet explains the logic that drove this change perfectly,
“The control is located on the left side, the logical place, for the following reasons: Travelling along the right side of the road the steering wheel on the right side of the car made it necessary to get out on the street side and walk around the car. This is awkward and especially inconvenient if there is a lady to be considered. The control on the left allows you to step out of the car on to the curbing without having had to turn the car around. In the matter of steering with the control on the right, the driver is farthest away from the vehicle he is passing, going in opposite direction; with it on the left side he is able to see even the wheels of the other car and easily avoids danger.”
This of course was flipped in Britain and her Colonies, however the logic has—for the most part—persisted to this day.
The rest of the world generally followed one of these big three, or allowed local customs and needs to dictate their laws. After the First World War, maps were re-drawn, and governments changed. It was during this period that both steering technology, as well as automobile placement laws were finalized. The next major technical breakthrough involving the steering wheel is currently happening. The steering wheel is fast becoming the control center for not only the direction of the car, but all the technology packed into it, as well as the HVAC, and even your personal phone. If this sounds dangerous and distracting, automakers are fast making this a moot-point, with companies such as Mercedes, Ford, and Tesla working on autonomously taking the steering wheel out of the hands of drivers. In the frighteningly near future, using a steering wheel may no longer be an option, and while I hope this doesn’t come to pass fully, some automation is inevitable and nice sounding.
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