It seems like a simple enough question: Who invented the automobile? But it turns out the self-propelled vehicle emerged in fits and starts, with many claimants on the title. And it’s a weird and wonderful story.

There’s no question where the story begins, in a highly exotic locale. A Flemish Jesuit missionary named Ferdinand Verbiest (below), an amateur astronomer and scientist, arrived at the Chinese court in 1658, managing through his cleverness to avoid the fate of past Jesuits, who were chained to walls for months — and then cut into pieces while still alive. For the Emperor K’ang Hsi, Verbiest built (or, at least, designed) a unique toy — a driving, steering, steam-powered toy. It wasn’t big enough to ride on, but it was a scale steam car.

Flemish Jesuit missionary, Ferdinand Verbiest

Fast forward to 1765, and a French military engineer named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered gun carriage (below). The finished motor carriage, built with the patronage of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, may have been capable of only six miles per hour, but it moved. And it sufficiently loosened royal purse strings to fund a second and larger model. That second one still exists in a French museum, where the full impracticality of it can be seen — the boiler hung off the nose, making it extremely front-heavy. No wonder it was hard to steer, and reportedly crashed into a wall — ignominiously ending its exploits on the road.

steam-powered gun carriage built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot

Another early pioneer was British, a steam innovator named Richard Trevithick, who built the world’s first locomotive (below) — and put it on the road instead of tracks. In 1801, his “Puffing Devil” carried six passengers up and down Fore Street in Camborne. Three days later, operator error caused it to overheat and burn to the ground.

The Puffing Devil, the world’s first locomotive

Shortly afterwards, one Oliver Evans built the first self-propelled vehicle in America (below)—and it also swam. Evans, a Philadelphian, built his 20-ton Orukter Amphibolos in 1805 as a dredger to excavate the city’s waterfront. To get it to the Schuykill River, a mile from his workshop, he drove it up Market Street at four miles per hour, attracting crowds. The 25 cents he charged onlookers was the only money Evans ever made from steam vehicles. The remarkable invention was sold for scrap.

Orukter Amphibolos, the first self-propelled vehicle in America built by Oliver Evans

What a visionary, though! Despite his setbacks, an unbowed Evans predicted in 1812, “The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines, from one city to another, almost as fast as birds fly … A carriage will set out from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast in Baltimore, dine in Philadelphia and sup in New York the same day.”

None of these folks made the headlines for inventing the first car. The much-lauded Wright Brothers of the road were in Germany and the U.S. 70 years after Oliver Evans. In Europe, Gottlieb Daimler had his 1.1-horsepower carriage (below) on the road in 1886, and Carl Benz built a practical two-passenger car with his own one-cylinder engine in 1885.

Gottlieb Daimler's 1.1-horsepower carriage

In the U.S., the Duryea brothers, Charles and Frank, built a car in 1893, and got it running on streets of Springfield, Mass. By 1896, they’d sold 13 Duryeas, thus becoming America’s first automakers. So, as I said, a lot of people share distinction in getting the wheels turning. And now there are more than a billion of them on the road, for better or worse. 

Here's a video look at Cugnot's car, with an idea of what that first drive must have been like:

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