More than one hundred and thirty years have gone by since Karl Benz drove a few yards in his Patent Motorwagen, the first-ever car to fit an internal combustion engine. Since then, cars and the automotive industry have evolved continuously, propelled by the ingenuity of mechanical engineers and technicians whose innovations have revolutionised the transport sector spilling over to other fields, in industry and everyday life. Here are five inventions that contributed the most to making the cars we know today.
The electric motor
The recent meteoric growth of electric cars, driven largely by the need to find a more sustainable alternative to internal combustion engines, might suggest that electric motors are a relatively new invention.
And yet, at the beginning of the history of the automobile, there were more electric cars than any other type, with great inventors, such as Planté and Edison, having patented technology suited to move a vehicle, such as the rechargeable (lead) battery or the DC electric motor, a few years earlier. Clearly, at that time it was not about less pollution and lower emissions. It was simply easier to build an electrically powered car at least until the great development of heat engines in the early 1900s.
At the end of the nineteenth century, electric motors were also superior in performance. The Jamais Contente made by the Compagnie internationale des transports automobiles de Paris was the first car to go over 100 kilometres per hour in 1899 and it was electric.
The windscreen wiper
The idea (seemingly trivial today, but revolutionary at the time) of a mechanical arm with a sponge attached capable of wiping away raindrops and snowflakes from the windscreen was first devised by Alabama rancher and viticulturist Mary Anderson in the early 1900s.
In the winter of 1903, Anderson was often in New York and, not driving herself, she was forced to travel by taxi. Whenever it rained or snowed, however, the driver had to stop every few yards or so to wipe the glass, an inconvenience that would make the fare skyrocket.
Back in Alabama, Mary Anderson thought of a mechanical lever that could replace the manual work. And that was how the windscreen wiper was created. It will take another 15 years before windscreen wipers would become standard equipment in cars.
The automatic transmission
As a result of many improvements made during their history, automatic transmissions have become more popular in Italy and Europe, so much so that drivers who go automatic hardly ever look back. However, following its diffusion in the 1940s this type of transmission was originally only successful in the United States, (today 90 per cent of all American cars fit one).
Maybe surprisingly, the invention was not American at all. In 1931, an Italian engineer from Città della Pieve (Perugia) called Elio Trenta patented an automatic progressive shifting gearbox and presented it to Fiat shortly thereafter. They ran a few tests and decided not to go with it, mainly because of the increase in fuel consumption and the reduction in performance in those times of unrestrained pursuit of speed.
The patent was sold to the US company Oldsmobile, instead, and they started mass-producing cars with an automatic transmission in the 1940s.
When industrial engineer John W. Hetrick built a prototype airbag on his kitchen table in 1952 he had no way of knowing how many lives his invention would save. He filed the patent in 1953.
This safety device was initially snubbed in the automotive world, at least until the 1980s when the use of seat belts spread massively and was made compulsory in many countries.
The first car to fit one was the Oldsmobile Toronado, a two-door coupé, in 1973. Hetrick would not make much money from his invention because the patent expired in the early 1970s, just before General Motors and other automakers began installing airbags in their models.
The Electronic Stability Control system
Like windscreen wipers, the invention of the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) system came as the result of a particular experience. Mercedes engineer Frank-Werner Mohn was in Sweden to test one of the German automaker's models in a winter of the late eighties when he lost control of the car and ended up in a ditch.
After this accident, Mohn and Mercedes started thinking about a device that could adjust the engine power and wheel brakes individually, with different intensity, to stabilise the trim of the car in oversteering or understeering situations. The first cars to fit the system as standard equipment were the Mercedes S600 coupé and the BMW 7 Series, in the mid-1990s. Mass diffusion would begin with the installation of the device on the Class A in 1997.
The Electronic Stability Control system has improved a great deal over the past 20 years thanks to major advances in electronics and today is a fundamental safety component. That is why it has been compulsory in the European Union for almost ten years.