The First Horseless Carriage

From Wikipedia: Cugnot was one of the first to employ successfully a device for converting the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into rotary motion by means of a ratchet arrangement. A small version of his three-wheeled fardier à vapeur ("steam dray") ran in 1769. (A fardier was a massively built two-wheeled horse-drawn cart for transporting very heavy equipment such as cannon barrels). The original 1769 model. Cugnot's 1770 fardier à vapeur, as preserved at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris. Cut-away drawing The first "automobile accident"? In 1770, a full-size version of the fardier à vapeur was built, specified to be able to carry 4 tons and cover 2 lieues (7.8 km or 4.8 miles) in one hour, a performance it never achieved in practice. The vehicle, which weighed about 2.5 tonnes tare, had two wheels at the rear and one in the front where the horses would normally have been; this front wheel supported the steam boiler and driving mechanism. The power unit was articulated to the "trailer" and steered from there by means of a double handle arrangement. One source states that it seated four passengers and moved at a speed of 2.25 miles per hour(3.6 km/h).[3] The vehicle was reported to have been very unstable due to poor weight distribution - which would have been a serious disadvantage seeing that it was intended that the fardier should be able to traverse rough terrain and climb steep hills. In 1771, the second vehicle is said to have gone out of control and knocked down part of the Arsenal wall, (reported to be the first known automobile accident); however according to Georges Ageon,[4] the earliest mention of this occurrence dates from 1801 and it does not feature in contemporary accounts. Boiler performance was also particularly poor, even by the standards of the day, with the fire needing to be relit and steam raised again every quarter of an hour or so, considerably reducing overall speed. After running a small number of trials variously des

While many people think of cars and automobiles as the product of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution, the first horseless carriages were built before the American Revolution!

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was an engineer in the French Army when he successfully built one of the world’s first steam engines designed specifically for turning wheels. By 1769 he had constructed a small vehicle around the steam engine, which he called the “fardier à vapeur” or “Steam Dray” It had only three wheels. The next year he had constructed a full-sized Steam Dray for testing. This version had two wheels in the rear and one in the front, capable of steering the 2.5-tonne vehicle. There was a large boiler onboard to produce the necessary steam for the engine.

This monster of a cargo-mover was capable of a stunning 2.5mph, about the same as an easy walking pace. Unfortunately, the fire for the boiler was difficult to maintain and often went out at inconvenient times. When it had to be relit it took up to 15 minutes to generate enough steam to power the engine. It was also a rather unstable vehicle, making it unsuited to the military transport purposes it was originally designed for. The idea was interesting but ultimately shelved in favor of more practical innovations.

One unverified story states that not only was Cugnot responsible for the first “Horseless Carriage”, but also the first car accident. Supposedly while testing the Steam Dray, he had collided with a brick or stone wall, collapsing part of the wall. The truth of this story is in question, however, as there are no written accounts of the said crash.

Several replicas of the Steam Dray can be seen in various museums around France, as well as in Cugnot’s town of birth, Void-Vacon. The original can be seen in the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris.

By Joe deSousa – Joseph Cugnot’s 1770 Fardier à Vapeur, CC0,


By Jackie Standaert

I'm an office worker by day, a historian by night. At some point, I'll have enough money saved to get my Ph.D. in History, but for now, my B.A. will have to do.

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