In many ways the crucial moment in automotive history came in 1876 when Nikolaus Otto patented the Otto cycle internal combustion engine. It was not Otto's design that was important, so much as the similarity of his design with that of an earlier engineer, Alphonse Beau de Rochas, who had built a "four stroke" internal combustion engine in 1862. Rochas wasn't specific enough in his patent to protect his invention. When the French began building internal combustion engines in the 1880s for their own early car market, Otto brought an action for infringement of patent. The French successfully pleaded that de Rochas had anticipated Otto, and patent ownership over the four cycle internal combustion engine was denied to any specific individual. This ruling had a profound effect on the development of the car. It meant that all manufacturers were now free to use internal combustion engines. It is reminiscent of the situation in 1989 when Tim Burners-Lee decided not to patent his idea for the internet. People had an unusual opportunity to exploit a revolution in communication, allowing its rapid spread world wide.
Quote by Soichiro Honda, founder of the Honda motor company, as displayed at the Design Museum
Much history had been leading up to the legal battle over Otto's engine. According to Phil Drackett in Encyclopedia of the Motorcar, the earliest recorded design for a motor car dates to 1335, when Guido de Vigevano drew a car in which sails transferred power to gear wheels, and then to driving wheels. Then in the fifteenth century the remarkable Leonardo Da Vinci designed a horseless carriage. As usual with Da Vinci you get the sense of a virtually supernatural man centuries ahead of his time: his horseless carriage design included a differential. This is a device that allows driving wheels to turn more quickly when they are on the outside of a turning circle, while wheels on the inside turn more slowly. It wasn't until the nineteenth century, with the work of Amedee Bollee and others that the differential was reinvented. While there is no record of a full sized version of Da Vinci's car, a clockwork model exists. For a full sized vehicle moving under its own power we have to wait until 1769, when Nicholas Joseph Cugnot built a steam powered car. Using technology invented by Thomas Newcomen and Thomas Savey, and improved by James Watt, Cugnot built a tricycle design with a huge boiler hanging in front of the leading wheel. In 1801 Richard Trevitick began working on a steam road coach, and by 1803 he had a coach capable of carrying eight passengers at 12mph. His vehicle never caught on, perhaps because roads were so bad that they could not cope with the weight of steam driven vehicles. Steam cars suffered a serious setback in July 1834 when a boiler exploded on John Scott Russell's steam coach in Paisley, Scotland, killing five passengers. By now steam technology had found its place in the developing railway industry, and the explosion of Russell's coach was used by rail interests to attack car development. Nevertheless individuals had already started working on creating a different type of engine which would be more suitable for road transport. In 1804 Francois Isaac de Rivaz had devised a piston engine using hydrogen to raise a piston, and then deriving power from the piston's stroke as it fell. In May 1826 an Englishman named Samuel Brown drove a car of his own design with a crude internal combustion engine up Shooters Hill in London. Then finally in 1862, Alphonse Beau de Rochas came up with his revolutionary four stroke engine. He devised a system where gas would be introduced into a cylinder, compressed with a piston, the gas exploded with a spark giving a down thrust on the piston, which gave power. The last part of the cycle was the piston's movement back upwards in the cylinder venting exhaust gas left over from the fuel explosion. It was a beautifully elegant system, and it was to be the failure of any individual to win a patent on it that allowed the system to be so widely used. Gottleib Daimler and Karl Benz led development of the Otto system in Germany, but those vital patent vagaries allowed French manufacturers to also use German engine design, while making rapid progress in other facets of car manufacture.
For the next stage of the motor revolution to take place, a struggle over patents was once again crucial. Patent attorney George E. Seldon foresaw the importance of motor cars. He planned to dominate this emerging market by establishing patent rights on the way cars would develop. Seldon patented an engine produced by an inventor named George Brayton, adding water cooling, a clutch, gear change, steering, brakes until he had a group of patents for a complete vehicle. He started this process in 1879, and waited for the car he had patented to come into being. Seldon's patents sat in the files, in the words of motor historian Phil Drackett, "like a time bomb under the infant motor industry" (See Encyclopedia of the Motorcar P34). In 1895 lawyer and financier W.C. Whitney acquired an interest in Seldon's patents and started to sue car manufacturers, importers and dealers for infringement. Ten manufacturers got together to try and buy Whitney off. A young man named Henry Ford who had set up his own car company in 1903 refused to join the cartel wanting to buy their way out of trouble. He decided to face Whitney, and and go ahead with production of his Model T. Whitney reacted by suing the Ford motor company. Ford held his nerve and fought the case in court. This was a brave and historic decision. If Ford had lost he would have been ruined. Initially the case did not go well. A 1909 judgment went against Ford. But on appeal things went better as Ford's lawyers made it clear that Seldon's patent was based on Brayton's engine, whereas all cars in production used the Otto/Rochas four stroke system, over which there were no patents. Ford finally triumphed in 1911, giving confirmation that car technology was open for the world to exploit.
Period motorcars outside the South Devon Railway
To capitalise on the freedom to use new technology, car makers now turned to techniques of mass production. Cars were one of the first items to be consistently produced on a moving production line. Beginning with the efforts of Henry Leland and Henry Ford in Detroit, production line methods resulted in a massive drop in price, and a huge rise in productivity and quality. Between October 1908 and May 1927 Ford made 15,007,033 Model Ts. Some industrialists, such as William Morris, and luxury car maker Ettore Bugatti, worried about the dehumanising effects of mass production. But their hand made philosophy resulted in products so expensive that only the rich could afford them. Henry Ford produced the first family car, affordable by people on modest incomes. As far as Britain was concerned it was an engineer named Frederick Lanchester who led the way in mass production of cars. Born in 1868 Lanchester set up his own engineering company, and conducted many experiments with early aircraft. But ten years before the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk there were few investors willing to take a risk on flying machines. So Lanchester turned to cars. Lanchester was a superb craftsman whose pursuit of quality often put him at odds with his commercially minded directors. Lanchester insisted "on complete interchangeability of machined components and in many instances had to design special tools and evolve new processes to meet his needs" (Automobile Design ed Barker and Harding P69 - 70). Other manufacturers tried to rely on a plentiful supply of cheap labour, which made hand fitting the most commercially acceptable form of manufacture at the time. Lanchester would have none of this, insisting on the consistent results only possible with machine tools turning out interchangeable parts. Lanchester's life, and his influence on car design and manufacture, can be explored at the Jaguar Museum in Coventry.
The pattern was now set. Cars would generally have four wheels, with an engine working on the Otto/Rochas four stroke cycle, driving a crankshaft. A friction clutch behind the engine would take power to variable speed gearing. Bevel gearing would be used to turn power flow through 90 degrees to the rear wheels. This basic arrangement was then produced in large numbers on a production line which kept costs down, allowing cars to develop into the dominant form of personal transport. This was beginning to happen in the 1920s. The Second World War led to a virtual suspension of road transport, and a temporary resurgence in railway use. After the war, however, the car took over, particularly after 1953 when petrol rationing ceased. In 1959 the first section of the M1 opened. According to The Department of Transport's Transport Statistics for Great Britain, 84% of journeys made in Britain are now made by car, with only 6% of journeys made by bus or coach, and 7% of journeys being made by rail (figures for 2007 see Transport Statistics For Great Britain, Modal Comparisons ). The figures make clear that cars have fulfilled their potential as widely available personal transport, and in so doing have dominated the shape of towns and cities, and the nature of society. Geoffrey Hindley, a writer of road history, claims that the car threatens to eliminate communities as distinct entities. Roads link communities, and house building along road routes results in urban sprawl in the place of distinct towns and villages. But perhaps this is a limited idea of what a community can be. Until the nineteenth century a community was a group of people who happened to live together in the same place. Like brothers and sisters you could not choose these people. But once the car came along communities could begin to become more diffuse, as people found freedom to travel. Communities of shared interest could begin to replace communities based simply on physical proximity. Where people actually lived sometimes became a "dormitory" while their lives actually took place elsewhere, in their place of work or recreation which they would reach by car. This trend of course developed even further with the internet which allows people to find like-minded souls anywhere in the world via their computer.
We have talked about the benefits of not crediting one person with the car's invention. It is, therefore, fitting to conclude by remembering that automotive history, like all other history, is the history of lots of people, rather than that of individuals. History likes to pick out individuals to simplify and humanise its story, but in reality a web of circumstance has to come together to allow developments to take place. Leonardo Da Vinci was marooned in the fifteenth century, without the technology to make his ideas into reality. The same thing happened many times during the history of the car. In 1883 Amadee Bollee designed a car called the Rapide capable of doing 37mph sixteen years ahead of any other car. Unfortunately the rubber tyre was not perfected, which meant that the Rapide's potential was wasted on tyres made of hemp rope. Today few people remember Amadee Bollee, because unfortunately his ideas were ahead of their time, and the web of other factors required for development had yet to come to fruition. Many other examples could be quoted, but perhaps an example from the world of motor racing, which of course works on the idea of individual stars and champions, would be revealing. In 1955 Vittorio Jano designed the D50 Lancia Formula 1 car with fuel tanks in modern looking "side pods" which improved the car's centre of gravity and contributed to its aerodynamic qualities. This innovative design once again could not fulfill its potential, because tyre development was lagging behind. "Stirling Moss has said that had modern racing tyres been available in 1955 things would have been very different, and Jano paid for being ahead of his time" (quoted in Automobile Design P251). The people we think of as being historical figures were often simply in the right place at the right time, and helped bring many threads of development together. Otto did not invent the internal combustion engine: his contribution was to introduce enough confusion into the patent situation to set development free from the hands of one person. And yet still we look to the individual, because we are all individuals and understandably look for importance in ourselves. The car was mass transport, but it was also our own personal locomotive and train company, with its own network of routes. The thoughtful motor racing historian William Court summed up this contradiction when he wrote of the way motor racing as a team sport still focuses itself on one man, the driver: ".... for all their talents, did either the egregious Chapman or the compelling Ferrari ever contrive a grand prix car that needed a committee of one to drive it. Thus, when all man's holy mysteries of chemistry, metallurgy, design and science have evaporated with the fall of that flag, it is still on the idea of the Great Man that the whole excitement and wonder of the sport must rest" (Power and Glory Vol 2 P213).