Karl Friedrich Benz is credited for patenting the first practical, gas-powered automobile in 1885. However, credit for inventing the first self-propelled land-based automobile goes to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. His machine, the Fardier, was moving under its own power 75 years before Benz was even born. This automobile was steam-powered and designed to haul military supplies. It was a work truck. Yesterday was Cugnot’s birthday – February 26th, 1725.
During the 1760s, Nicolas was a captain in the French Army. Back then, supplies and artillery were moved to and from battlefields via horse and buggy. The problem he constantly faced was that horses can get pretty tired hauling around heavy cannons and supplies all day. Nicolas wanted something that could keep moving without needing to rest. A horseless carriage, if you will.
The Fardier a Vapeur
In 1769, Cugnot came up with a mechanism that used steam to move a piston in a rotary motion using a ratchet system. It became known as the Fardier à Vapeur. It had 3 wheels with two in the back and one in the front where a horse would typically be. The front-wheel bared the weight of the boiler and drive parts. By 1770, Cugnot built a full-size version of his machine that was capable of carrying 4 tons with 4 passengers, at approximate speeds up to 2.4 mph (3.9 kph). Technically, the first automobile was also the first truck. This full-size prototype was deemed a success when it travelled 4.8 miles in under one hour carrying a full payload. Not bad for a vehicle born 6 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Complications with the Fardier boiling system made it more trouble than intended. The following year a second Fardier was built and it too made history. The Fardier lost control and hit a wall becoming the first automobile accident in human history. It must have been a frightening sight for witnesses seeing a large steaming machine running amuck at 2 mph.
By 1772, the French Army had given up on this idea, but it was not forgotten. King Louis XV gave Cugnot a pension of 600 livers a year for his efforts. The King also asked that the Fardier be kept in the army’s arsenal. In 1800, the Fardier was moved to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers museum – 44 years before Karl Benz was born. It has been on display ever since.
Most recently, in 2010, a replica of the Fardier was built and it worked perfectly. It proved that Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s invention was way ahead of his time.