It’s difficult, and arguably pointless, to separate the innovation of the automobile and Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). The use of an ICE for a “horseless carriage” was so obvious that early engines were all used for cars. Engine propelled buggies were, by far, the most popular use case though ICE’s also powered other applications.

Early Attempts

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 invented the first automobile, a steam-powered carriage created and driven around Paris. Cugnot’s three-wheel car was useful for carrying around equipment too heavy for horses. But the machine was clunky and difficult to control, eventually causing the first car crash. Cugnot’s car, banned on the streets or Paris, remains to this day in a Parisian museum. Cugnot received an honorary pension from King Louis XV.

In the United Kingdom, Richard Trevithick used a high-pressure steam engine he’d created to build a self-propelled car that he drove around with friends on Christmas Eve, 1801. That car burned up while Trevithick and friends drank at a nearby pub and failed to tend the fire powering the engine.

Trevithick later realized steam engines do not work well as automobiles and went on to innovate the locomotive. American Oliver Evans, a concurrent innovator of the high-pressure steam engine, also used his as a hybrid car/boat in 1805; he also abandoned it as impractical.

First Real Cars

French brothers Niépce, inventors of photography, built and patented the first ICE car in 1807. France was still reeling from the post-revolution political instability and finding investors in a new technology proved difficult. The brothers focused their work on England, where they improved their engine and automobile, but still failed to gain traction. However, they eventually moved on to photography where they had more success commercializing their innovation.

Fellow Frenchman François Isaac de Rivaz also claimed to innovate a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine in 1807 though the details are sketchy.

Decades passed with little progress until Lenoir created a coal gas-powered internal combustion engine and car to drive with. Lenoir’s car was the first mass-produced (using standards at the time) automobile. Jules Verne noted in his 1863 novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century, that the streets of Paris would be filled with “the Lenoir machine.” Besides cars, Lenoir’s ICE was also used for small engines: printing presses, pumps, tools, etc…

Otto & Daimler: Liquid Fuel Cars

German Nikolaus Otto created the first modern engine that used liquid fuel and ran on the same principles. Otto realized the Lenoir engine was inefficient and loud due to its origins as a steam engine. Otto built and commercialized a different type of engine that had four separate actions, the four-stroke engine. His engine would 1) fill a piston with coal-gas and air, 2) compress the mixture, 3) ignite the mixture, producing movement, and 4) release the exhaust.

Gottlieb Daimler, who had worked with Otto, started a company to produce his own engines, using legal trickery to void Ott’s patents and avoid paying royalties. With Otto’s patent voided, Karl Benz also started a car company.

In 1885, both Daimler and Benz – who had two separate companies – changed their engines from coal gas to liquid fuel that was easier to manage. To make the fuel ignite they invented the carburetor, which turned the liquid into a flammable aerosol.

In 1895, Frenchman Levassor changed the body of an automobile from a horse carriage, with a motor on bottom, to a lower vehicle with the motor in front and gears for different speeds, the modern car. Levassor, who won the first major car race, died the next year from injuries sustained in a race and never had a chance to build a company. His competitor and sometimes collaborator, leading French bicycle maker Armand Peugeot, created an early auto company.

Daimler and Benz cars were extremely expensive, and many car companies formed, also creating high-cost cars. Ransom Olds formed an auto company in 1897, being the first to use standardization and an assembly line to build affordable cars.

Interesting note: the French repeatedly had first-mover advantage in cars and engines but never managed to commercialize their work as effectively as the Americans and Germans.


Asphalt increased the utility or roads by allowing horses to travel faster, carriages and bicycles ride more smoothly, and (later) enabled cars.

Natural asphalt paved the Champs-Élysées in 1824. However, it was unstable and difficult to maintain.

de Smedt created an artificial asphalt, manufactured from oil, that was more consistent and manageable than natural asphalt. His first asphalt street was laid on William St., in Newark St., NJ, Jul. 29, 1870. Today, all paved roads used de Smedt asphalt.

“In the very midst of the city, the ground was covered by some dark stuff that silenced all the wheels and muffled the sound of hoofs. It was like tar, but Papa was sure it was not tar, and it was something like rubber, but it could not be rubber because rubber cost too much. We saw ladies all in silks and carrying ruffled parasols, walking with their escorts across the street. Their heels dented the street, and while we watched, these dents slowly filled up and smoothed themselves out. It was as if that stuff were alive. It was like magic.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Air Brakes

Air brakes use compressed air to allow trains to run much faster, reducing the cost of train rides. Before air brakes, train speeds were limited due to an inability to reliably slow them. Runaway trains were a real problem before air brakes limiting the speed and utility of trains.

Image result for early paris train breaking through a building

Westinghouse innovated an airbrake for trains that functioned vastly better than prior braking methods, which were sometimes ineffective and could cause trains to derail. His air brakes allowed trains to travel faster and more safely. They quickly became an industry standard.

The Westinghouse air brake used an air reservoir connected to brakes on each car. The momentum of the cars filled or removed air from the reservoir, slowing the train or allowing it to move faster. Unlike prior systems, the air brake was far more reliable and far less prone to break.

Air brakes clamp down when they are unengaged; the air pulls them away from the wheel rather than forcing them to slow wheels down. Because of this, in the event of a failure the brakes would clamp down slowing a train, rendering them failsafe. In the event of a catastrophic failure, the worse that would happen is a train wouldn’t move.

Earlier brakes were pneumatic but the systems leaked and were prone to failure. Whereas pneumatic fluid once leaked must be manually refilled, a challenge on countless rail cars, air is infinite.

Air brakes remain in use today for heavy equipment, especially equipment that is coupled. Some trains continue using air brakes though many have transitioned to electrical brakes that can apply more measured force. Air brakes are also used on semi-trailer trucks.

While the brakes are mechanically failsafe, human error can defeat them. If an engineer purposefully changes air pressure in the valves, the brakes can release when they should clamp. This happened in a 1988 Paris train accident which killed 56 and injured 60 people.

Later in life, Westinghouse decided to diversify and partnered with Tesla to build AC electricity.

Transcontinental Railroad


After much debate in Washington, DC, and with the civil war brewing, Judah presented a transcontinental railroad a “Think Big” project. Asa Whitney had lobbied for a western railroad starting in 1847 but got nowhere. Somehow, Judah cut through the other issues (especially slavery) to get attention and became a central plank of the Republican platform.

The hardest engineering challenge was finding a suitable path over the Sierra mountains. Teaming with Daniel Strong, who wanted a road to his small town, Judah found a pass that worked.

Railroad Barons

Judah then needed to raise money for the last part of the railroad. He sold small shares to many people, but his Central Pacific Railroad lead funders included the “Big Four”: Leland Stanford (railroad President), Collins Huntington (VP), Mark Hopkins (Treasurer); Charles “Bull” Crocker called himself a construction supervisor though expressed a desire only to make money. It was Crocker who, during construction, famous hired Chinese laborers. Prominent jeweler and smaller investor James Bailey became Secretary.

Judah was the Chief Engineer; he also played a key role by leading key Congressional committees on railroad funding.

On July 1, 1862, Lincoln signed the law (written by Judah) providing loan guarantees for the railroad.

The Big Four, and later allies, exercised an option to force Judah to convert his shares to bonds. He retained a repurchase option but, on his way back east to find funding, died of yellow fever.


On May 10, 1869, the railroad was finished. Each of the Big Four made a fortune. Leland Stanford eventually donated much of his wealth, and his large ranch in Palo Alto, for the creation of Stanford University. Crocker famously donated none of his fortune before or after his death.

Besides the Central Pacific Railroad, the Congressional authorization, arranged by Judah, also financed a complementary line, built by Union Pacific, that connected to Central Pacific line.

Since railroad builders were paid, by the government, for each mile of track they laid both the Central Pacific and Union Pacific famously competed to build faster until the lines met.

Internal Combustion Engine

Few innovations throughout history are as important as the internal combustion engine.

In 1807, the Niepce brothers received a patent on an internal combustion engine but failed to commercialize it. The brothers also invented photography.

The first known working internal combustion engine (ICE) belongs to Lenoir. He converted a steam engine to burn coal gas using sparks, the modern internal combustion engine. Lenoir was well funded with two million francs.

About 1862 Lenoir introduced a car that used his engine and traveled about 3km/hr. His engine did not compress the fuel and was loud. Jules Verne predicted, in an 1863 novel, that Paris would eventually be filled with Lenoir horseless carriages. In 1860, Scientific American reported the Lenoir engine was the end of the steam age.

In 1867, German Nikolaus Otto introduced a vastly improved Lenoir engine that used a free piston.

Otto partnered with Gottlieb Daimler and released a four-stroke engine in 1876.

Karl Benz released a two-stroke engine in 1879.

Liquid fuel engines existed as far back as 1794 and the internal combustion engines all soon ran on fuel distilled form oil.

There are many people who claimed to innovate earlier ICE’s, including some that allegedly ran on oil. As with many important innovations the historic record ー due, probably, to patent disputes ー is not entirely clear.

Lenoir died in poverty in August 1900.

Rechargeable Battery


Frenchman Gaston Planté invented the lead-acid rechargeable battery. In the early years, his battery lacked commercial value. Planté’s battery stored electricity and recharged easily but tended to release the electric in enormous bursts that, at the time, offered limited utility value.

Before the Planté battery was the Voltaic Pile and later derivatives. These were common but produced only small amounts of electricity, typically just over one volt.

The Planté battery used two sheets of lead separated by rubber strips immersed in a solution of 10 percent sulfuric acid. His battery delivered two volts, double the then state-of-the-art. Interestingly, this is not altogether different than the materials used in modern car batteries 150 years later though modern batteries typically deliver 12 volts.

By the early 1800s, his battery was used to power electric cars. At the time, and until the 20th century, electric cars were more common and considered more desirable than noisy, dirty liquid fuel-powered cars. Women especially preferred electric cars and virtually all New York City taxis, until the early 20th century, were electric On New Year’s Eve, 1899, the majority of cars in the world were electric and ran on Planté’s battery, or a derivation thereof. One problem with the Planté battery is the charge wouldn’t last long which, combined with fierce lobbying, eventually led to the rise of the internal combustion engine.

Internal combustion engines overtook electric cars but Planté’s battery eventually proved useful with the invention of car starting motors. Before electric car starters, people used a hand-crank to start their car. However, under certain circumstances, the crank could thrust backward hurting or even killing the car owner.

The battery, filled with lead, is heavy and toxic. However, it delivers a strong charge. The design has not changed significantly in today’s car starter batteries.

Planté was a professor of physics at the Polytechnic Association for the Development of Popular Instruction. His work was solely academic for five years before he started to develop his battery.


Sporting both bodacious name, mustache, and title of nobility, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin forever changed air travel.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin

Zeppelin wasn’t the first to try making hot air balloons more maneuverable. That honor belonged to Frenchman Henri Giffard. Basically, a big cigar-shaped balloon, Giffard’s airship was the first aircraft that enabled navigation. In 1882, with declining health, Giffard committed suicide and left his estate for humanitarian purposes.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin improved upon Giffard’s airship creating the more stable, maneuverable, and larger Zeppelin airship in 1874. Zeppelin was 52 years old when he started work on his airship. His initial interest in air navigation came from his time observing the US Civil War. He spent time with the Balloon Division of the Union Army.

Zeppelin’s innovation involved multiple pockets of buoyant air inside a rigid frame ship rather than one big pocket of air.

Airships survived WWI and flew around both Europe and also transcontinental flight when the LZ-129, the 129th airship, Hindenburg, spectacularly exploded during a live radio broadcast.

Pneumatic Tires


Robert Thomson

The wheel is a seminal invention, widely regarded as one of the most important in human history. However, early wooden and stone wheels were far less useful than their modern air-filled rubber counterparts, the pneumatic tire.

Despite their ubiquity today, it’s amazing that the pneumatic (air-filled) tire initially went all but unnoticed.

Scottish inventor Robert Thomson patented the first pneumatic tire, used for bicycles, in France in 1846 and the US in 1847. The tires became a reasonable local success then pilfered out.

Thomson left school at age 14 and spent two years with an uncle in the US, in Charleston, South Carolina, learning to work as a merchant. After returning home to Scotland, he taught himself science and other arts needed to become an inventor.

Thomson’s first invention was a device to detonate explosives from afar using electricity. He worked for the railroad barons Stephenson’s for a while then left to create his own railroad consulting business.

Using a “throw stuff against a wall until something sticks” approach he invented and patented the pneumatic tire in 1845 at age 23.

Thomson’s tire was technically complete but the business model had several major flaws, most of which he had no control over. First, there was little use for the tires: they were too weak to support a full-size buggy and bicycles were still new and uncommon. Roads were typically unpaved or paved with cobblestones that would pop pneumatic tires. Finally, the tires were expensive to produce and purchase.

High price and low utility doomed Thomson’s tire at least until technology caught up. That didn’t happen for many years.

Thomson died in 1873, at age 50. Most of his patents expired.

In 1887, retired veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop re-invented Thomson’s tire and founded his own tire company, Dunlop. Frenchman André Michelin re-invented Thomson’s tire and founded his own company the following year, with named after himself. Both Dunlop and Michelin’s tire companies still exist today.

Besides the tire and explosive detonator, Thomson is also credited with inventing the fountain pen.

Steel Ships

Wooden ships were limited in size and their hulls could be more easily penetrated than metal ships during war. Ironclad ships reduced the cost and risk of shipping by enabling larger ships that were more difficult to sink.

The first known ironclad warship was The Nemesis, built for the East India Company, in 1839. Soon, virtually all ships ー military and commercial ー were built from iron rather than wood. The Nemesis was used effectively in the opium wars.

Laird, the shipbuilder, formed his company specifically to build metal ships. Their first boat, launched in 1828, was an iron barge.       

Laird was 50 when he went into shipbuilding and did not have relationships with other shipbuilders. Both his age and lack of collegiality with industry incumbents are thought to have contributed to his willingness to disrupt traditional shipbuilding.

Screw Propeller

Screw Propellers vastly reduced the amount of power needed to move ships. The propellers look like fans and work on similar principles except they displace water instead of air.

Countless people, from James Watt onward, claim to have invented the screw propeller. Early experiments, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, functioned but propelled ships slowly.

The SS Archimedes, built in 1838, is the first steamship to use a screw propeller. The ship and propeller were named after the Greek engineer Archimedes. He innovated the idea of using a screw-like design to move water.

Eventually, in 1837, Francis Smith and Col. John Stevens, working independently, demonstrated viable propellers. Afterword, work progressed, evolving from screw-like devices to fan-shaped propulsion systems.

Significantly, in the early 1900s, the Wright Brothers adapted the fan-shaped screw-propeller for the airplane.