Looking Back At The First 40 Years Of The Automobile

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40 Years Of The Automobile

Popular Science

Seventy-five years ago, in December 1939, Popular Science looked back on the then-40-year history of the automobile.

Today when we think about automotive innovation, we think about technologies like electric power, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and robot chauffeurs that aim to disrupt the way we all drive. But it's easy to forget that just getting everyone driving was a tremendous innovation all on its own.

Coming down, their drivers proudly demonstrated that, under the right conditions, brakes could be made to work.

By the late 1930s, driving was a normal part of the American life, and cars already looked much more like the sedans and coups of today than the horseless buggies of yesteryear. Our writer described an auto exhibit at Grand Central Palace in New York City, where "not one prospective buyer ever inquired whether a car would run or could actually be steered around a corner with perfect safety."

Yet, only four decades ago, those were the first questions that curious visitor asked at the first National Automobile Show which opened in New York's old Madison Square Garden on November 3, 1900. And they had to be shown. So exhibitors set up a curving lane made of parallel rows of barrels and proudly maneuvered their one-lung chariots through this hazardous course.

Those one-lung chariots were performance-limited to say the least:

Around the exhibition arena, visitors were taken for a whirl along a board track to convince them that these motor buggies actually would run. And up on the roof, exhibitors had erected a board incline with steep grades up which their cars chugged fifty-three feet in fifteen seconds. Coming down, their drivers proudly demonstrated that, under the right conditions, brakes could be made to work.

None of the cars had windshields, and you steered with a tiller instead of a wheel. Some models had four wheels, and others only three. The three-wheeled Deryea had a single lever that took care of steering, changing gears, adjusting the spark, controlling the gas, and applying the brakes. Headlights were flickering oil-wick carriage lamps.

Race Cars Over Time

Popular Science

Today, anyone with a civics textbook has heard the most important development of the early 1900s was Ford's assembly line. Cars practically flew together in factories, compared to the pricey handmades of the previous generation, and the automobile overtook America.

In the year of this first automobile show, there were only 8,000 cars in the entire United States, less than the number that now pass a city corner in a couple of hours. A 1900 car that would run at thirty miles an hour for 100 yards was a racing machine ...Yet ten years or more of motoring activity had already passed before the first automobile show, a decade marked by a bitter struggle for supremacy between electric, steam, and gasoline types. Electrics had the disadvantage of limited range, and annoying delays for battery charging. Steamers ran smoothly, but it took a long time to get steam up, and boiler leaks were frequent. Gas buggies were smelly, noisy, and complicated.

Of course, by 1939, gas cars looked like they'd won the day. Now, as electric cars sit at the cusp of mainstream, it's almost as if we're trying to turn back the clock.

Read the full story from our December 1939 issue in our archives.

The Birth Of The Gas Station

Popular Science