All-Time Auto Inventions

Steam engine

The car basically starts here.

The steam engine is the flagship innovation in automobile engineering, as well as one of the most significant byproducts of the Industrial Revolution. The engine uses force produced by steam pressure to push a piston back and forth inside a cylinder.

In 1698, Thomas Savery patented a machine that could effectively draw water from flooded coal mines using steam pressure. Fourteen years later, Thomas Newcomen designed and installed the first practical and successful steam engine. In 1775, James Watt developed a reliable engine that was a refinement of Newcomen’s work.

At first, steam engines led to the development of locomotives and ship propulsion before being refined for use in cars in the late 1800s. The car engine evolved further when it was replaced by the less-expensive internal combustion engine.

Internal-combustion engine

Contrary to what some believe, Henry Ford did not invent the internal-combustion engine. In fact, credits Nikolaus Otto for the early 1860s innovation, which burns a mixture of fuel and air. (Some sources say that Etienne Lenior produced the first reliable one in 1859.)

These engines—which originally used coal gas, not gasoline—were a major success because they did not need a boiler or licensed operators. Plus, they could be started quickly, with no waiting period to raise steam.

The main advantage of the internal-combustion engine was its superior weight-to-power ratio. This allowed the engine to be used to drive motor vehicles, aircraft, tractors, submarines and tanks. Motor vehicles replaced railways as the principal means of land transport in the 20th century.

Ford did not receive a patent for his internal-combustion engine until 1935. His most historic accomplishment was installing the first moving assembly line for the mass production of automobiles.

Automatic transmission

More precisely called self-shifting transmission, this prevents drivers from having to change gears manually as the vehicle is moving. Besides being a plus for people with disabilities, it facilitates driving with two hands more often.

The story of the automatic transmission tells of a lost opportunity for Alfred Horner Munro, a Canadian. He originally developed it in 1921, patented his design in 1923 and received UK and U.S. patents in 1924 and 1927, respectively.

Munro’s early design used compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid, as used by modern systems. But he was unable to find a commercial application for his invention.

In 1932, Brazilian engineers José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lely Lemos developed a hydraulic fluid version. They sold their design to General Motors in 1940, and driving was changed forever.

Catalytic converter

It could be argued that in terms of benefiting humankind, the catalytic converter is the most important automotive invention ever developed. It converts toxins and other pollutants into less hazardous forms, improving air quality.

Mounting concerns about the ecology in the early 1970s led to the Environmental Protection Agency drawing up stricter regulations on exhaust emissions in 1975. The catalytic converter concept came from French engineer Eugene Houdry, who was concerned about smog and air pollution in Los Angeles.

His catalytic muffler was patented in 1962. The first production converter, which refined Houdry’s design, was produced in 1973.

Antilock brakes

Maybe we should have saved this amazing nugget for our monthly Inventiveness page at the back of the magazine: Antilock braking dates as far back as 1908, when J.E. Francis developed the system for trains. The concept was introduced in the aerospace industry in the 1950s before catching on in cars in the 1970s and motorcycles in the 1990s.

(The first patented antilock braking system was developed in 1928 by German engineer Karl Wessel, but a working product never materialized.)

In 1971, Chrysler introduced “Four-Wheel Sure Brake,” the first computer-operated, four-wheel anti-skid braking system to be offered on an American car. It was standard equipment on the ’71 Imperial.

Electronic stability control, also referred to as electronic stability program or dynamic stability control, is an updated version of antilock brakes. This computerized technology improves a vehicle’s stability by detecting and reducing loss of traction or skidding.

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