Carnot's ideas are now considered brilliant, but they were published over years after the first steam engines had already been built. What was use was science when it came a century after the inventions it tried to explain? Huygens' idea to capture the power of a small explosion was what the "doers" seized on.
In those days, street lamps were naked flames fed by gas pipes. Lenoir wondered what would happen if he could ignite some of this street-lamp gas in a metal tin using an electric spark. His "spark plug" as we now call it would make the gas explode with a thump of power that could push a piston. If he could repeat this process again and again, he could drive a machine.
The "gas engines" Lenoir built made as much power as 1. In , Lenoir fixed one of them to a three-wheeled cart and built a very crude car. It made an km 9-mile journey in 11 hours—four times longer than it would have taken to walk. Lenoir died a miserable pauper because his engines, though revolutionary, were soon obsolete. Gas was a cleaner fuel than coal, but it wasn't practical—there was even a risk it would explode and kill people.
Gasoline a liquid fuel proved to be a better bet, as German Nikolaus Otto — discovered. Otto was no scientific thinker—far from it: he was a traveling grocery salesman who taught himself engineering. During the s, he tinkered with various engine designs and, in , finally came up with a really efficient gasoline engine, which worked by methodically repeating the same four steps or "strokes" over and over again. Virtually every car engine has worked the same way ever since. German engineer Karl Benz — studied Otto's work and determined to do better. After building a simpler gasoline engine of his own, he fixed it to a three-wheeled carriage and made the world's first practical gas-powered car in No-one took much notice—until Benz's feisty wife Bertha and their two young sons "borrowed" the car one day without asking and set off for a km mile journey to see grandma.
They bought fuel at drug stores chemist's shops , because gas stations had yet to be invented, and the boys had to get out every so often to push the car up hills. Bertha even had to stop a couple of times to make repairs with her hair pin and garter belt.
News of this intrepid early test-drive caught the public's imagination; Benz couldn't have dreamed up a better publicity stunt if he'd tried. He took his wife's advice and added gears for uphill driving. Soon he was developing successful four-wheel cars and, by the start of the 20th century, was the world's leading car maker. Artwork: Thanks to his wife's test drive, Karl Benz added gears to his car to make it easier to drive up hills. Here's a drawing from a patent he filed showing how they worked: the gasoline engine blue powers a piston pink and flywheel green , which drives the gears red that power the large rear wheels brown.
Benz soon found himself up against Gottlieb Daimler — and Wilhelm Maybach — , who worked for Nikolaus Otto, until Otto and Daimler fell out.
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Setting up their own firm, Daimler and Maybach experimented with a giant gasoline engine nicknamed the Grandfather Clock because it was tall and upright. After shrinking it down to size, they bolted it to a wooden bicycle and made the world's first motorbike. By , they were building cars. Ten years later, the Daimler company named a car "Mercedes" in honor of Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of one of their customers and dealers, Emil Jellinek — The Daimler and Benz companies were rivals until the s, when they merged to make Daimler-Benz and began selling cars under the name Mercedes-Benz.
Rudolf Diesel — was both a thinker and a doer.
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Confined to hospital after an accident, he spent months poring over books and papers by people like Carnot and Otto. He soon came to the conclusion that he could build a far better engine than the puny gasoline machines Benz and Daimler had designed and knocked up a prototype, an enormous 3-m ft high machine, in the early s. This first diesel engine made twice as much power as a similar steam engine and, even more remarkably, could run on practically any fuel at all—even oil made from peanuts and vegetables. Diesel, in other words, was a pioneer of biofuels long before people had a name for them.
Diesel was convinced of his genius and certain his engine would change the world, but he never lived to see the success he'd earned. In September , while traveling from Germany to England on the mail ship SS Dresden , he fell overboard and drowned. Some people think he was murdered by German or French secret agents to stop him selling the secrets of his engines to the English in the run up to World War I, which broke out the following year. While inventors like Diesel were developing engines in a careful scientific way, a hapless American called Charles Goodyear — found the secret of making car tires completely by accident.
After learning about rubber , he convinced himself he could make his fortune by turning it into useful objects like waterproof shoes. All attempts ended in disaster and his life became a catalog of misery and misfortune. His shoes melted in the summer heat, six of his 12 children died in infancy, and his family had to live in grinding poverty eating fish from the river.
But Goodyear was determined. When debts landed him in jail, he simply asked his wife to bring him a rolling pin and some rubber and he carried on inventing in his cell. He finally made his big breakthrough when he accidentally dropped a piece of rubber on a hot stove. It cooked and shriveled into a hard black mass that Goodyear immediately spotted as the thing he'd wanted all along.
This is how he developed the tough black rubber we use in tires today by a cooking process now known as vulcanization. Photo: American inventor Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process in the 19th century. By the start of the 20th century, gasoline-engined cars were fast, reliable, and exciting. They were also stupidly expensive. Car makers stuck with big, expensive cars, so customers stuck with their horses and carts.
Then a bold American engineer called Henry Ford — came along and decided things had to be different. Photo: Henry Ford was inspired to build his first car after he saw a steam-powered tractor traction engine like this one. He realized straight away that engine-powered vehicles were the future. Ford was no scientist, but he'd been repairing watches and tinkering with machines since he was a boy. Never afraid of rolling up his sleeves, he loved machinery and understood it instinctively.
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His first car was little more than a four-wheel motorbike that he called the Quadricycle. When he took it on the streets of Detroit in , horses bolted in all directions. Ford must have been delighted: he had no time for horses.
Aged 14, he'd been thrown from the saddle of a colt, caught his foot in the stirrups, and dragged home along the ground. A few years later, he'd been seriously injured when his bolting horse and cart tried to smash through a fence. Now was the time to settle those scores. Ford loved machines and hated horses, so he hatched a simple plan: he'd make the simplest possible "horseless carriage" and he'd make it in such enormous quantities, in only one color, that he could sell it cheaply to a huge number of people.
It took him 12 years to get things right. Photo: Henry Ford's mass-produced cars soon became ubiquitous. This Ford Model Y dates from Immaculately preserved, it was photographed in —at the sprightly age of 76! The secret was mass-production: making the car from simple, easy-to-fit parts in huge quantities.
Other car makers used small groups of mechanics to build entire cars very slowly.
By , Ford was building cars at his new Highland Park factory in a completely different way using a moving "assembly line". Model Ts were gradually assembled on a conveyor that inched past a series of workers. Each mechanic was trained to do only one job and worked briefly on each car as it passed by. Then the vehicle moved on, someone else did another bit, and the whole car magically came together. The first year Ford used his assembly line, production of the Model T leaped from 82, to , By , Ford's giant River Rouge factory was making 2 million cars a year.
Photo: Inside one of the many River Rouge buildings in Photo believed to be in the public domain by Alfred T. Ford's most ambitious project was his sprawling River Rouge car plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
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Production of Model T parts switched here in , though the car was still put together at Highland Park. With dozens of enormous buildings spread across a vast area, River Rouge was more like a city for making cars than a traditional assembly plant. The idea was to make cars more cheaply than ever before by taking in the most basic raw materials at one end and churning out millions of finished vehicles at the other.
Giant barges ferried coal to the Rouge from Ford's own mines down the river. Elsewhere on the site, there was a steelworks, a glassworks, a cement works, a body-making plant, a sawmill, and a rubber-making plant. River Rouge even had its own hospital, police force, and a steam-electric power station big enough to light a city. All this meant it could produce one car every 49 seconds. Photo: Henry Ford in later life.
Photo by courtesy of US Library of Congress. Henry Ford was a big success and a people's hero: no-one did more to put cars within reach of ordinary people. But he made big mistakes too, probably because he was a mess of contradictions. Stuck in the past?
Ford looked to the future—he grew soybeans to make plastic parts for cars and experimented with biofuels years before almost anyone else. He famously wrote "History is more or less bunk". But, as he grew older, he set up his own museum, packed it full of nostalgic exhibits, and spent increasing amounts of time there daydreaming of a lost era. He even had visitors driven round on horses and carts. His assembly-line methods were widely copied and quickly transformed the United States from a clean and green farm-based nation into a dirty, smoky factory-based one.
Yet the more industrialized things became, the more Ford yearned for the rural world he was helping to destroy. The Model-T Ford was a huge success, but Ford refused to update it: "There is a tendency to keep monkeying with styles and to spoil a good thing by changing it.