Highway (Limited Access Road)

High-speed streets with minimal interruptions were a novel concept when first created. Highways, technically called limited access roads, have entry and exit ramps are few and located far between.

Long Island, near New York, was home to the first highway in 1911. Americans continued to build highways, enacting the Federal Highway Act of 1921.

Germans built a system of super-roads – high speed thoroughfares, the Autobahn, starting with the Bonn-Cologne autobahn in 1929. However, the project was well underway before the Nazi party came to power.

The US Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided funds to states to build high-speed modern highways connecting the US. The law authorized the construction of 41,000 miles of highway.

Eisenhower knew the potential of roads but also the problems of outdated roads because, in 1919, he volunteered for the army to drive across the then-rural USA. The army’s goal was to assess mobility by motor, a new concept. At the time many roads were unpaved and even signage was spotty.

Eisenhower’s “Motor Truck Train” left Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1919, with 81 vehicles to San Francisco. Seven hours, 46 miles (74km), and one breakdown later they were finished for the first night. Roads were so bad the army traveled with a trailer that routinely pulled trucks from the primitive roads.

Helping along a 'B.' (Credit: Eisenhower Collection)
The Motor Truck Train of 1919

The convoy dealt with no signage, slippery sand, and 200 yards of quicksand. Not realizing how long the journey would take, the soldiers resorted to water rationing despite that they were still inside the continental United States. It took 62 days to travel the 3,242 miles (5,200km) to San Francisco, an average of 52 miles (83.5km) per day.

“I think that every officer on the convoy had recommended in his report that efforts should be made to get our people interested in producing better roads. It seems evident that a very small amount of money spent at the proper time would have kept the road in good condition.”

Dwight Einsenhower

Once building the national system started, it didn’t take long for highways to reach into the core of the American psyche. Novelist Jack Kerouac penned On the Road in 1957, a story about an epic American road-trip, a right-of-passage for youngsters to take exploring the relatively enormous country. The freewheeling “beatniks” he described morphed into a generational ethos that, even today, permeates American culture.

Europe and other countries also built out their highway system. With the help of the Eurotunnel, completed in 1994, it’s possible to drive from Edinburgh, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa, a mere 8,790 miles (15,750 km), a trip Google says will require 183 hours of driving time.

Highways remain popular and plentiful.

Automobile Assembly Line

Assembly lines leverage standardized parts to break auto assembly into discrete components, each that can be done by a small number of people (often just one). Standardized parts evolved into standardized jobs.

Ransom Olds, inspired by a musket factory that used standardized parts with workers each focused on one part, created the first auto assembly line. Olds, the founder of Oldsmobile, did well. His cars sold for $150 less than Ford’s (pre-Model T). However, investors, determined to build pricier cars, pushed him out of his company.

The “disassembly” lines at Chicago slaughterhouses served as inspiration for Ford employee William Klann. One person repeatedly performs an individual task, butchering animals in stations. However, the single station factory is an old concept, arguably dating back to at least Arkwright-era factories.

Ford, via Klann, adopted the auto assembly line. He is generally (and wrongly) credited with the innovation of the auto assembly line.


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.

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.