Coming of the automobile




In 1900 the average American traveled about 1200 miles in a lifetime, mostly on foot, and
mostly within his or her own village or town. By the end of the century, the typical
American adult would travel some 12,000 miles by automobile alone, in just one year.

About 8,000 cars were registered in the America at the start of the 20th century. There
are now some half billion in the world, with one-third in the United States, where more
than 1.5 trillion miles are traveled each year. How the auto industry grew from a few
thousand Tin Lizzies to the modern, aerodynamic and multipurpose vehicles of today is a
chronicle of engineering at its most resourceful - from materials development to mass
production techniques.

For hundreds of years, humans have attempted to develop means for faster, more
economical travel. Vehicles have been powered by humans, animals, springs,
clockwork, and wind. In 1769, Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first
automobile, which was actually a steam-powered tricycle. For much of the 19th century,
steam power prevailed, despite the danger of boiler explosions and unpleasant odors
left by exhaust fumes.

Electric cars made their appearance in the late 1800s. Cleaner than steam-powered
cars, they had a large bank of storage batteries under the hood. They could travel at 10
to 20 miles per hour for a distance of 50 miles before the batteries needed recharging. In
the second half of the 19th century, Siegfried Marcus of Austria created the forerunner
of the modern automobile, German engineer Gottlieb Daimler put a gasoline-powered
engine on a bicycle, and Karl Benz followed with the first gasoline car.

By 1900 a typical automobile in the United States looked something like this: It was
shaped like a box, much like a horseless carriage, with little protection from rain, dust, or
other hazards. It was started by a hand-crank - a dangerous undertaking since a
backfiring engine could turn the crank into a whirling weapon known to shatter bones.
Engines were mounted haphazardly under the body, and steering was often by tiller. All
of the parts including the gears and drive systems were exposed to the elements. Early
tires were solid rubber, and did not cushion bumps. The arrival of pneumatic tires made
the ride more comfortable, but punctures every 10 or 20 miles were the norm. Kerosene
side lamps and smelly acetylene head lamps lit the traveler\'s way. There were no shock
absorbers or heating systems.

People who drove autos in the early days were seen as heroic adventurers. Backyard
tinkers and bicycle makers were the auto repairmen of the day, and owners were
encouraged to carry repair kits that listed at least 60 things one should not be without on
the road - mastic to seal leaks in the gas line, extra hoses, wire, spark plugs, towing
cable, oil, grease, and a can of gasoline with funnel and chamois for straining.

By 1900 there were 50 automobile-manufacturing companies and some 8,000 cars
registered in the United States. Each car was hand-made and cost about $1,550. With an
average wage of $12.74 per week, only the wealthy could afford cars. The masses
rode horses, hopped trains, or walked. It was 20th century engineering, through the
advent of mass production, that opened the door to mass car ownership.

The first to originate this key industrial innovation was Ransom E. Olds in 1901, who had
his workers wheel carts of car parts to each car frame during production. This method
boosted factory output from 425 cars a year to 2500 in 1907. In 1908, Henry Ford - Olds\'
great rival - improved the system by adding a conveyor belt that brought the car frame to
the workers. This cut production time for one Model T from a day and a half to an
unbelievable 93 minutes. Ford was able to reduce its cost from $850 in 1906, to $400 in
1916, and $290 by 1924. Ford\'s mantra was "fast and cheap" - and that did not leave
any room for variety. All his cars were painted black, because it was the color of enamel
that dried the fastest. He sold 1 million cars by 1921 and 15 million between 1908 and
1927 - 50 percent of the market.