A Century of Autos Shapes U.S

By Eisenstein, Paul A. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Century of Autos Shapes U.S


Eisenstein, Paul A., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


By today's standards, it wasn't much. Only 13 cars rolled out of the Duryea plant in Springfield, Mass., that year, barely as much as a modern assembly plant produces in a quarter of an hour, but when Charles and J. Frank Duryea built their first batch of Motor Wagons in 1886, they set in motion an industrial revolution that has changed the world.

The horseless carriage has been around for some time, evidence suggesting the first steam-powered coaches pre-dated the Roman Empire. But exactly 100 years ago, the Duryea Brothers transformed a hobby and a curiosity into an industry, producing, for the first time, more than one car from a single set of plans.

In the century since, America has been reshaped in the image of the automobile. A largely agrarian nation has become the world's industrial powerhouse. It's hard to imagine any aspect of American life that hasn't been affected. Our suburbs, indeed our homes, are designed to accommodate our automobiles. And car manufacturing is the nation's single biggest source of employment.

The automobile is a presence in our lives from birth until death, and the car has become a subject second only to love in our popular culture. But the idea of the automobile is anything but unique to American society.

"The idea of a self-propelled vehicle is as old as man himself," says Richard P. Scharchburg, professor of Industrial History, at GMI, (formerly the General Motors Institute), in Flint, Mich.

Archaeologists have found evidence that steam-powered carriages were displayed during the earliest dynasties of China. And during the third century AD, the Roman masses were lured to the Coliseum by Emperor Commodius's self-propelled cart. It was designed to run by tightly winding up human hair, much like a rubber band.

Ever-creative, American inventors began tinkering with the idea of self-propulsion as far back as the Revolutionary War, and by 1805, Philadelphia's Oliver Evans was charging gaping onlookers a quarter to watch his crude Orukter Amphibolous, a steam-powered dredge put to work in the city's busy harbor.

The Germans get credit for developing the modern automobile. To most historians, the breakthrough occurred in 1885, when a German tinkerer by the name of Carl Benz mated a petroleum-powered engine to a small carriage. (Some years later, he borrowed the name of a major investor's daughter, giving birth to Mercedes-Benz.) Word quickly spread, and by the early 1890s, there were hundreds of horseless carriages running all over the world.

But each car was distinctly different from the one that came before. That reflected the fast-paced changes in technology, but also the fact that few saw a real role for the self-propelled carriage. They were noisy, slow and dangerous. In Britain, laws were passed requiring that a flagman proceed well ahead of a car signaling passers-by to the potential dangers.

The Duryeas changed all that as they began "mass" producing their Motor Wagon. The concept didn't take long to catch on. By 1908, there were an estimated 485 different manufacturers building automobiles in the United States alone. Employment grew nearly 100-fold during the first decade of the 20th century.

In those early years, there was a fierce battle among proponents of gasoline, steam and electric power.

"William Howard Taft was the first president to actually own a car," says Bob Casey, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mich. "He bought a steam car, an electric car and a gasoline-powered car so as not to show any favorites and to hedge his own bets."

It wasn't until the 1920s that cheap petroleum won the race. But by then, Americans by the millions were putting their horses out to pasture and slipping behind the wheels of their new cars.

It took the Model T and the assembly line to transform the automobile from a rich man's curiosity into the machine for the masses it is today. …

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