Four wheels: A history

Commuting as we know it has been centuries in the making.

The transportation vehicles we’ve come to rely on—cars, buses, boats, and motorcycles—weren’t created overnight; it took hundreds of years and countless talented inventors. In this article series, we’re going to look at how far transportation vehicles have come.

To understand just how far, we need to take a look at how it all started. Let’s begin by taking a look at inventions that revolutionized transportation on four wheels. The first wheeled vehicles in history originated over 5.5 thousand years ago.

Looking way back

Let’s focus on cars. It all began around 3500 B.C.E., when wheels were first fixed to carts, making the first wheeled vehicles in history.

The next big step for cars wouldn’t come until thousands of years later, when Nicolas Joseph Cugnot invented the first self-propelled road vehicle (i.e., the vehicle could run on its own) in 1769. Cugnot got the ball rolling, and in 1801, a man named Richard Trevithick invented the first steam-powered locomotive designed for roads. Almost 60 years later, Jean Lenoir built the world’s first automobile with a gasoline engine.

Soon after the emergence of the gasoline-powered engine, Karl Benz invented the world’s first practical automobile in 1885, receiving simultaneously the first patent for a gas-fueled car. Benz’ invention was one of the first cars to work and look like what we use today. Benz was highly successful, helping to “usher in the age of modern automobiles.” Together with his wife, Bertha Benz, Benz founded the automobile company Mercedes-Benz, one of the leading car brands today!

Carl Benz 1885 motorcar. Photo from Flickr user Jun Selta
Carl Benz 1885 motorcar.
Photo from Flickr user Jun Selta

The future calls for “greener” fueling systems within transportation—and we can’t ignore that—but most cars on the road today still run on gasoline. Think about it, how many times have you heard someone say “I need to get gas,” while running errands?

Now that we’ve outlined how the modern car developed, as well as some of the major inventors who helped develop it, let’s take a look at the inventor who brought car production full circle.

Who is Henry Ford?

Have you heard of Henry Ford? If not, you might be familiar with the Ford Motor Company.

Ford built his own gasoline engine in 1893, and three years later, Ford built a “horseless carriage,” which he called a “Quadricycle.” Quadricycle means “four wheels.” Ford wasn’t the first inventor to use this term, but he might be the most popular.

Then, Ford formed the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899, introducing the Model T car in October 1908. Ford is famous for his Model T design (each car came in black). But Ford’s greatest accomplishment—or most famous—is said to be his revolution of factory production. Ford introduced conveyor belt-based assembly lines to his factory in the early twentieth century (1913–1914).

So, what is an assembly line?

It’s a manufacturing process where different parts are added to a semi-finished product as it moves from workstation to workstation. Parts are added in a sequence, until the final “assembly” is produced. The process is used in cyclical repetition, allowing workers to perform the same few tasks over and over, as opposed to mastering each component of production.

Ford assembly line in 1913. Photo from Wikipedia
Ford assembly line in 1913.
Photo from Wikipedia

Ford’s way of thinking allowed cars to be assembled in record time, while reducing production costs. Early assembly line production had been started by Ransome Eli in 1901 but was popularized by Ford’s shining example. Assembly line production is another invention, over 100 years old, that’s still being used today. Actually, assembly lines are now used in most manufacturing processes.

The necessities

There have been other inventions that revolutionized modern transportation over the years. Things like traffic lights, seat belts, and windshield wipers are now a safety standard for cars, but they began as simple ideas.

Can you imagine what driving would be like if inventors didn’t keep thinking of new things to keep us safe?

Picture this: You’re navigating down a busy road that has no traffic signals—but a lot of traffic—or driving through a downpour where the rain blocks your view of the road.

In 1903, the first windshield wipers were invented by a woman named Mary Anderson from Alabama. Anderson’s invention was patented two years later and became standard equipment for cars a decade later.

And then there’s Garrett Morgan, an African American inventor and businessman. He was successful in many endeavors, and upon buying a car he realized how unsafe road intersections were. Determined to make driving a safer experience, Morgan patented the first traffic signal in November 1923.

As you probably know, windshield wipers didn’t go “out-of-style” because safety never should. Similarly, Morgan’s invention was sold to General Electric Corporation for $40,000 (a huge amount of money at the time) and his device was used until the three light traffic signal was developed later. Though it evolved, the traffic signal is yet another invention that stuck.

Now what?

Now that we have a good basis for understanding how cars came to be, we’ll focus on vehicles that have two wheels and vehicles that have no wheels at all. What was the first boat like? When was the bicycle invented? Let’s find out!

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer