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11 firsts that changed the way we drive

By Posted : 06/01/2015

Classic sports carThe first Ford Model Ts had wooden wheels and hand-cranked engines, and it would take automakers years -- or even decades -- to upgrade such early models with heat, radios and other features that we take for granted today.

"The automobile's story has been one of a slow evolution of innovation," says Greg Wallace, General Motors' corporate historian. "The industry is one big running change (agent). We are constantly fine-tuning things."

Wallace says a car's basic makeup -- engine, seats, tires, etc. -- hasn't really changed from the earliest days, but that automakers have constantly improved performance and added amenities. "As the automobile allowed people to go further and further, consumer demand grew for creature comforts," he says.

And in safety, too. In 1921, before advances such as safety glass, crumple zones, seat belts and air bags, 24 drivers died for every 1 million miles driven. Today, that number is 1.11. (See "The best new-car safety features.")

Although historians don't always agree on when different inventions first appeared, the information that follows reflects the earliest usages documented by "Robertson's Book of Firsts," "Scholastic Book of Firsts," "Famous First Facts (U.S. and international editions)" and other credible sources.

The first car (c. 1769-1885)

Historians consider Karl Benz's 1885 Motorwagen the first first commercially viable car.Many people think the 1908 Model T was the first automobile ever built, but it was merely the first mass-produced, affordable one (and some historians even bestow that title on a 1901 Olds).

The first device that many experts view as a "car" actually dates all the way back to 1769, when French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot developed a steam-powered tractor designed to haul artillery. Other historians put the automobile's invention year as 1862, when Paris engineer Etienne Lenoir built an early internal-combustion engine and hooked it to a horse carriage that he drove for 12 miles.

But most experts agree that the first commercially viable car premiered in 1885, when Germany's Karl Benz created a three-wheeler that resembled a big gas-powered tricycle. Benz would go on to co-found what is today's Mercedes-Benz brand.

The first electric starter (1896)

This ad for the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition boasted that the car came with an electric starter instead of a crank.Drivers originally started cars by having someone turn a crankshaft for them on the vehicle's grille, but that took so much work that it apparently gave rise to the term "cranky" to describe how these helpers felt afterward. Crankshafts also occasionally snapped backward and broke a helper's hand, or worse.

The earliest documented car with an electric starter dates to 1896, when a British electrical engineer added one that he invented himself to his Arnold Motor Carriage. Belgian automaker Dechamps then began selling cars with electric starters in 1902.

In America, Cadillac founder Henry Leland decided to mass-produce cars with electric starters after one of his model's crankshafts snapped back and killed a friend in 1910. He hired inventor Charles Kettering, who had developed an electric cash register to replace hand-cranked ones, to apply similar technology to cars.

Leland put Kettering's starter in the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition, a move that GM's Wallace calls "a game changer" because it made driving far more appealing to women.

As for Kettering, he'd go on to create more than 100 inventions and help launch New York's famous Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The first car keys (1914)

An Indiana automaker added a car key to the ignition of one 1914 model, although the system only came into widespread usage when Chrysler followed suit.Making automobiles easier to start made them easier to steal, creating the need for car keys.

Early electric starters just had push buttons, but one Indiana automaker included a key-controlled ignition switch on a 1914 model called the Inter-State. Car-key ignitions came into wide use in 1949, when Chrysler added them to all of its cars.

Ironically, automakers have been going the other direction in recent years and replacing key-controlled ignitions with push-button ones on many models. But unlike the early systems, modern keyless ignitions won't start unless you to have a special key fob that sends a signal to the auto to prove that you're authorized to drive it. (See “Who pays to replace your lost keys?”)

The first speedometer (1899)

The first speedometer was invented in 1899.New York inventor Joseph Jones created the first gauge to measure auto speed in 1899, dubbing his invention the "speedometer."

Jones developed the device after his wife asked while they were driving a steam-powered car he had built how fast they were going. When Jones admitted that he didn't know, she suggested he come up with a way to find out. He did so, patenting the speedometer in 1903 and reportedly making a fortune off of it.

Today, you ignore your speedometer at your own peril. (See “Ticket’s impact typically lasts 3 years.”)

The first car radio (1922)

The first car radio appeared in 1922; they were ubiquitous by the 1950s.Car radios date back to 1922, when a Chicago teenager added one to a Model T. A few months later, German automaker Daimler and Marconiphone Co. displayed a radio-equipped limousine at a London auto show.

The first mass-produced car to offer a radio was a 1924 Rolls-Royce built by a U.S. subsidiary that listed a receiver as an option, although "Robertson's Book of Firsts" says it's possible no one actually ordered one. Author Patrick Robertson found that the earliest model to definitely come with a radio was the 1925 Summit, an Australian brand.

The first push to curb distracted driving soon followed, with a Massachusetts lawmaker unsuccessfully seeking to ban car radios in 1930.

The first car bumper (1897)

The Czech-made Prasident automobile had the world's first car bumper.Czech automaker Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft added bumpers to its "Prasident" model in 1897, but they're said to have fallen off after a short trip.

British auto engineer F.R. Simms, a friend of Mercedes-Benz co-founder Gottlieb Daimler, ultimately received the first patent for car bumpers in 1905. Simms is also known for inventing the 1899 "Motor Scout" and 1902 "Motor War Car," two military vehicles that served as forerunners to the modern tank.

The first bumper sticker (1920s)

Bumper stickers apparently date back to the 1920s, hut came into wide use in political campaigns with the If you're going to have bumpers, you might as well have bumper stickers.

According to Bloomberg columnist Stephen Carter (a Yale University Law School intellectual-property professor), the first bumper stickers appeared in the late 1920s to advertise products.

Election-related bumper stickers arose in the 1930s, with widespread use ahead of the 1952 presidential election. That's when a "Draft Eisenhower" movement began putting out "I Like Ike" stickers to urge World War II general (and future president) Dwight D. Eisenhower to run.

The first car heater (c. 1907)

The earliest car heaters date back to around 1907.Early cars either lacked roofs completely or came with what we now call soft-cloth convertible tops, giving drivers little or no protection from the cold.

Many car owners simply put their vehicles away each winter, while others bought special heavy clothes or used devices common for horse carriages -- kerosene lanterns, portable coal heaters or even bricks that you'd heat up at home.

The first heaters specifically designed for cars appeared in the after-market around 1907 and used a vehicle's exhaust for warmth.

Typically installed by plumbers, they'd use pipes to route exhaust gas through the car's cabin to give off heat. But these systems often leaked, smelled bad and even caused some asphyxiation deaths.

The earliest modern heating system appeared on some 1933 Fords. Using a heat exchanger, they safely transferred warmth from the car's exhaust to fresh air that came out of a dashboard vent.

The first car air conditioning (1939)

The first automotive air conditioner appeared in 1949.Heating a car is nice, but nothing beats a well-air-conditioned car on a hot day.

Now-defunct U.S. automaker Packard unveiled the first built-in auto air conditioner at a 1939 auto show. The device cooled, filtered and dehumidified air using refrigerated coils set into a duct located behind the car's rear seats.

When you drove the Packard at 60 miles an hour, the air conditioner had the same cooling capacity that 3,000 pounds of ice offered over a 24-hour period.

The first seat belts (c. 1949)

Volvo added the first factory-installed seatbelts to cars in Sweden in 1959, bringing them to the U.S. market four years later.New York inventor E.J. Claghorn received a patent in 1885 for a "safety belt," although his application pre-dated mass-produced cars and basically described the kind of device that repair people use today to hook themselves to telephone poles.

The first factory-installed car seat belts came from U.S. automaker Nash around 1949, although some researchers claim the now-closed firm didn't add them until as late as 1952.

The modern three-point seat belt (lap belt plus shoulder harness) first appeared in 1959 on the Volvo PV544 sold in Sweden and on cars the company exported to America beginning in 1963. Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin developed the three-point belt based in part on his earlier work on airplane ejector seats.

Today, it’s illegal in most places to drive without wearing a seatbelt. (See “10 things you used to do but now can’t.”)

The first car navigational system (c. 1981)

Honda's 1981 GyrocatorSeveral companies claim to have developed the first electronic-navigation systems for cars around 1981.

For instance, Honda offered an optional "Electro Gyrocator" -- a crude system that predated today's satellite-linked Global Positioning System (GPS) devices -- on some Accords that year.

Rather than rely on positioning satellites (which only major militaries had access to in those days), the system used a gasoline-powered gyroscope to display a car's position as a dot on a small video display terminal. Users received a set of plastic-overlay maps to put over the screen to actually figure out where the dot said they were.


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