The Fruits of Civilization (7-2-1) Vehicles


Leonardo da Vinci pondered a self-propelled vehicle in the 15th century. The idea was thereafter vigorously pursued.

Steam-engine vehicles preceded those powered by petrol. A steam-engine automobile was built by French engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769. Steam carriages had a heyday in Britain in the 1830s. By 1840 it was clear that steam coaches had a fleeting future. They had much to contend with, including public antipathy to machinery and the enmity of the horse-coach trade.

In Britain, the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1865 took the steam out of steam-powered transport: reducing permissible speeds and requiring 3-man crews for each vehicle. The act was repealed in 1896, having been in effect long enough to stifle the development of road transport in the British Isles.

The attitude toward automobiles was altogether different in the US. Americans were always gung-ho on innovation, with scant thought to externalities.

Methodist minister and physics professor J.W. Carhart built a working steam car in 1871 in Racine Wisconsin. This induced the State of Wisconsin to offer a $10,000 award to the first party to produce a practical substitute for animal transport (1875). The offer led to the first car race in the United States (1878).

Internal combustion engines also had numerous industrial applications, serving alternately to replace manual labor or to aid worker productivity. But getting folks to-and-fro became these engines’ primary employment.

Wings were strapped onto petrol engines in the early 20th century. For most of the century, air travel was a luxury reserved to the moneyed class. Deregulation that began in the US at the end of the 1970s changed that, letting everyman fly the skies like sardines in an airborne can.