Few inventions in modern times have had a bigger impact on the history, economy and social life of much of the world than automobiles. In a few short decades, the automobile has gone from wooden, open vehicles to steel, fully enclosed year-round sedans that get thirty miles to the gallon. Its mechanical complexity was almost completely perfected by 1929, and the only major developments since then have been improvements in materials, lubrication, braking systems and air conditioning.
Until the turn of the century, automobiles were so unwieldy and unstable that many cities and towns outright banned them. Even when Louis Greenough and Harry Adams of Pierre, South Dakota, built a homemade wagon from an Elkhart carriage and a two-cylinder Wolverine gas engine, they were denied permission to haul passengers at the county fair.
In Germany and France in the late 1800s, inventors like Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz and Nikolaus Otto worked on the concept of a gas-powered car. Benz’s first design was clumsy and fragile, but it incorporated some of the essential elements that would characterize the modern automobile: electrical ignition, differential, mechanical valves, carburetor, oil and grease cups for lubrication, and a four-stroke engine.
The advent of the automobile was a revolution that brought the end of centuries-old forms of land transportation and put the owners of harness makers, buggy-whip companies, livery stables, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, street cleaners and an army of horseshoers out of business. It was also a source of controversy and conflicting opinions. Car-haters hysterically over-dramatized its risks and foretold catastrophes, while motorists celebrated the freedom it brought.