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The Automobile: An Invention that Changed the Course of History

As those who read my column know, I have written a few times about the automobile. I am very interested in the history of the automobile, primarily because the invention of the automobile has brought about so much change in the lives of mankind. In days before the automobile came along, folks were more or less captives of where they were born and raised: captives because of time and distance. Many never ventured beyond a few miles from where they were raised. The invention and ultimate affordability of the car changed that. While Henry Ford wasn’t the first to invent the automobile, he was foremost in the effort to make it affordable for the average person. The Model T, or Tin Lizzie as it was often called, sold in 1925 for only $260.
Before the horseless carriage was invented, getting from one place to another was often a long and arduous undertaking. Walking was one of the principal modes of travel before the automobile came along. The horse was a valuable way to travel: either to ride or to pull a vehicle. We may take for granted hopping into our modern car with all its bells and whistles. Now I know that many folks ride horses for recreation, but they don’t depend on their steed for long distance travel, as was often the case before the car was invented.
Some of the older folks of Johnson County will remember when the horse was an essential part of every family’s life. For rural folks travel entailed hitching a horse or a team of horses to a conveyance and traveling slowly to town. It was common to see horse drawn vehicles on the roads in bygone days. Another good thing brought about by the car was the improvement of the roads. For the automobile to be accepted and used, the dirt and gravel roads of the day needed to be improved.
I was doing a little research on the automobile a few days ago and was quite surprised to find that what some historians believe was the first internal combustion engine powered car was built in Vienna, Austria about the time when the American Civil War drew a close. That war ended when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865. It was also about that time that an Austrian inventor named Siegfried Marcus tried out what is thought by some to be the very first internal combustion engine powered car. Marcus has been largely forgotten. He was Jewish and during World War II the Nazi forces had instructions to destroy the machine but it was hidden to prevent its destruction. An 1875 version is still in existence.
The first test of the car is a bit humorous in a way. According to Encyclopedia Britannica and other sources, Marcus’ first car was a cart carrying a two-cycle engine geared to the rear wheels with no clutch. It was taken to a remote tryout area. There, a strong man lifted the rear of the vehicle off the ground, the wheels were spun, and the wheels were lowered to the ground and away it went for all of about 200 yards.
Marcus experimented some more but ironically he eventually gave up on improving the vehicle because he didn’t think there was much of a future in the horseless carriage.
He was wrong of course and we are indebted to a host of folks who experimented with and built the early automobiles. There were those who invented and built cars powered by steam engines, by electric motors, and by the internal combustion gasoline engine. Of course the gasoline engines won over the others and the rest is history. There is resurgence in the development of electric powered cars in view of the cost of gasoline. Those who come after us may look back on this era as a time of innovation that led to the dominance of electric powered cars, just as we look back on the dominance of gasoline powered vehicles.