Skip to main content

Everyday Mysteries

« Back to Everyday Mysteries page

Question Who invented the automobile?

Answer

This question does not have a straightforward answer. The history of the automobile is very rich and dates back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for transport vehicles.

Das erste praktisch brauchbare automobil der welt, das Benz-Dreirad von 1885.  Photograph shows the Benz three-wheeler, made in 1885.  Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

There are many different types of automobiles – steam, electric, and gasoline – as well as countless styles. Exactly who invented the automobile is a matter of opinion.   Earlier accounts often gave credit to Karl Benz, from Germany, for creating the first true automobile in 1885/1886.  However, our knowledge of the  invention of the true automobile continues to evolve.  The story of the invention of the automobile has become enriched with various other figures who played a part in its history.

Old horseless carriage at gasoline station near Lost River, New Hampshire
Old horseless carriage at gasoline station near Lost River, New Hampshire.   Carl Mydans photographer. 1936. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Below is a selection of highlights in automobile  history, compiled from information in Leonard Bruno’s book Science and Technology Firsts (Detroit, c1997) and ThoughtCo.’s History of the Automobile.

Automobile Highlights

Inventor Date Type/Description Country
Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804) 1769 STEAM / Built the first self propelled road vehicle (military tractor) for the French army: three wheeled, 2.5 mph. France
Robert Anderson 1832-1839 ELECTRIC / Electric carriage. Scotland
Karl Friedrich Benz (1844-1929) 1885/86 GASOLINE / Automobile powered by an internal combustion engine: three wheeled, four cycle, engine and chassis form a single unit. Germany Patent DRP No. 37435
Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler (1834-1900) and Wilhelm Maybach (1846-1929) 1886 GASOLINE / First four wheeled, four-stroke engine- known as the “Cannstatt-Daimler.” Germany
George Baldwin Selden (1846-1922) 1876/95 GASOLINE / Combined internal combustion engine with a carriage: patent no: 549,160 (1895). Never manufactured — Selden collected royalties. United States
Charles Edgar Duryea (1862-1938) and his brother Frank (1870-1967) 1893 GASOLINE / First successful gas powered car: 4hp, two-stroke motor. The Duryea brothers set up first American car manufacturing company. United States
Music cover - Automobiling
Parker, Walter Coleman (composer). Automobiling. 1905. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Published 11/19/2019, Updated 2/9/2020

Have a question? Ask a science librarian

 Back to top