The history of the automobile is one of constant technological innovation—and it always will be
Slide Show >>One stormy New York City night in or around 1905, a woman named Mary Anderson noticed that, despite operating the very latest in transportation technology, city streetcar drivers—operators of some of the first production automobiles—were as susceptible as ever to Mother Nature. As rain, snow, and sleet clogged their windshields, the drivers were forced to open the side windows for a view of the road, and frequently stopped to manually clear the windshield anew.
Months later, Anderson patented the first windshield wiper, a rubber blade that would allow drivers to clear their windshields, while they drove, with a lever on the inside of the car. Though carmakers first hesitated to integrate the device into their vehicles, the tremendous safety advantages the invention afforded were indisputable. By 1916, windshield wipers came standard on almost all automobiles in the country.
Anderson was one of the first in a long line of people who saw the automobile as an unfinished product, a puzzle missing some of its pieces. A hundred years after her invention, the automobile is undeniably still unfinished—but look at how far it has come. In some cases, eureka moments like Anderson's have led to rapid shifts in auto design; yet most car technologies have evolved over a slow process of tooling and retooling.
As in the case of the windshield wiper, safety is frequently the prime motivator for auto tech advancements. Arguably the two most significant safety features, seat belts and airbags, were both invented for airplanes in the early part of the 20th century and adapted for car design during the 1950s. Brothers Bob and Kenneth Ligon patented the quick-release AutoCrat Safety Belt, the first seat belt to be included as a car's original equipment—in Ford's (F) 1956 models. Twelve years later, the invention became required by law on all U.S. passenger vehicles.
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Many drivers initially resisted the seat belt and sought a safety alternative. The airbag, invented by John Hetrick in 1952 and adopted on an experimental basis by Chrysler in 1967, was originally conceived as one such alternative. However, by the early 1980s, this thinking began to change and many carmakers, such as Mercedes-Benz, began to market the devices as an extra measure of safety. Soon following, the U.S. government required all cars produced after April 1, 1989, to have them.
Between 1960 and 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, frontal airbags saved 12,074 lives—nearly one a day. Safety belts, they say, have saved 168,524 lives in the same time period—about 11 per day.
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The standardization of these and other car safety features have allowed engineers to upgrade performance—the safer we are, presumably, the faster we can go. The sport-utility vehicles and other all-terrain vehicles of today are actually the grandchildren of a turn-of-the-century invention: four-wheel drive.
Dutch carmaker Spyker introduced the concept of four-wheel drive with its 60 hp model around 1903, but major American manufacturers didn't begin to take notice until wartime. Jeeps became a household name during World War II, and in 1945 their maker, Willys, came out with the first full-production, four-wheel-drive vehicle, the CJ-2A.
The puzzle of the modern car does not begin to come together until you add technological features designed solely for the purpose of human comfort. In the early days of automobiles, going for a car trip was entertainment for its own sake. As more and more consumers began to own their own cars, this novelty value wore off and carmakers were left with the task of tailoring their designs to modes of pleasure.
One company that helped make great strides in this area was the Galvin Manufacturing Corp. In 1930—at the onset of a culture fascinated by radio—Galvin began production of a $120 car radio that could be installed in most popular automobile makes. In 1947, the company adopted their radio's name, Motorola (MOT), a testament to the product's success in cultivating the new market of car stereo.
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The earliest car radios have since given rise to car 8-tracks, cassettes, CD, DVD, and MP3 players wired to sophisticated amplifiers, speakers, and interface screens. In the century since Mary Anderson took a ride in the machine she discovered to be incomplete, the automobile has become just about everyone's darling of reinvention.
It doesn't take long now, it seems, for popular culture and tastes to bleed into the new generation of cars. When radio was all the rage, carmakers scrambled to integrate products like the Motorola into their designs; likewise, the fast food drive-through boom of the '60s and '70s led to the adoption of built-in cupholders. What's next, innovators?
To see a history of technological innovations that helped to create the cars of today—and tomorrow—click here.