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.



Nicéphore Niépce

The Niépce brothers were hell-bent on creating earth-shattering technology and they did so, twice. First, they created the internal combustion engine. Their native France was still adjusting its socioeconomic climate after the revolution so Claude went to England trying to commercialize the engine. During that time, Nicéphore invented photography.

This brings us to a definitional moment, the difference between inventing and innovating. Inventing something typically means creating something new, that might or might not have value. Innovating refers to the process of creating a new product or service that has enough value that somebody will pay.

The Niépce brothers were world-class inventors. But, due partly to circumstances partly beyond their control — their timing sucked; their native France was a basket case during this time — they failed to build their work into substantive businesses.

While Claude was trying to sell the engine, Nicéphore decided to experiment if there was some way to capture the image on the back of a camera obscura. Eventually, he focused on silver-based chemistry, inventing photography.

Photography vastly reduced the price of creating images. Before photography, creating a realistic image required sitting for days with an artist. Even then, the final image might or might not look like the actual image. Nature painting was constrained due to limitations on paint chemistry.

All the sudden humanity was able to photographically preserve images without the use of a portrait painter. This vastly reduced the cost and increased the accuracy of preserving images.

Despite that Niépce invented photography Louis Daguerre eventually stole most of the credit and money. However, historians, in time, corrected the record.

Henry Fox Talbot allegedly invented a similar type of photographic process and patented it. He claimed his experiments were performed in 1834, trying to gain a priority date to the Niépce brothers and also Daguerre. There’s a fine argument his work was little more than patent trolling though he did, later, invent a better type of photo paper.