Today, there are over one billion vehicles on the road, pretty amazing when you think about the fact that the first automobile, the Benz Patent Motorwagen, rolled out of a shop barely 120 years ago. Still, vehicles weren’t widely distributed for a few years, until the advent of assembly-line vehicle fabrication, and then there was a veritable explosion of automobiles on the roads.
That explosion started way before even the Ford Model A and the Benz’s Motorwagen, the internal combustion engine built to convert exploding fuel vapors into mechanical motion. The first crude internal combustion engine used gunpowder to drive water pumps in Versailles in the 17th Century. Clearly, the engine has come a long way! Since that time, engine design has continually advanced, each step generating more power and become more efficient.
1886 – The first automobile engine was designed and built by Karl Benz for his Motorwagen. It was one of the first reliable engines to be developed, a single-cylinder gasoline engine generating just 0.75 hp. Karl’s wife took one of these vehicles on the road a couple years later, taking the vehicle some 111 miles on a road trip, undeniable proof that the automobile was ready for prime time.
Because of the limitations of early ignition systems, usually hot-bulb or open-flame, engine compression, power, and speed were all very low. Engine starting was usually achieved by a hand-crank or rope-and-pulley arrangement, which were sometimes dangerous and required significant physical effort.
1896 – The first electric starter was designed and built by English electrical engineer H. J. Dowsing, which was installed on an Arnold, which was adapted from a Benz Velo. Electric starters were originally engaged with a button on the dash or the floor, but were eventually incorporated, by Chrysler in 1949, into a keyed ignition cylinder for security and convenience. The electric starter made it possible to introduce higher-compression engines to the growing driving public, who no longer had to risk sweat or possible injury starting them. Even so, some models took a long time to adopt the electric starter – even the Ford Model T used a hand-crank until 1919.
Understandably, harnessing exploding gasoline has its downsides, such as the generation of lots of waste heat, which can be inefficient, if not destructive. Early and small engines were both liquid- and air-cooled. Some motorcycle engines and other small engines are still air-cooled to this day, and the world’s most-popular vehicle, the Volkswagen Beetle, which produced some 21.5 million vehicles between 1938 and 1997, was entirely air-cooled. There are still millions of old air-cooled Volkswagen 1300s on the road today, a testament to the reliable technology.
WWII – Before WWII, most vehicles were air-cooled, citing air-cooling as being more effective and less-prone to failure in combat, because coolant loss due to shrapnel or even small-arms fire to easily disable a vehicle. While liquid-cooling was indeed invented by Karl Benz some 40 years earlier, it wasn’t until the 1930s that deficiencies in water pump and radiator technology were resolved, eliminating boil-overs, which were very common in pretty much all liquid-cooled vehicles until that time. Today, practically all engines are liquid-cooled, efficiently keeping engines within their operating temperature range and eliminating overheating.
These are just a very few things that we found interesting about the history of early engine design, and there are many hundreds of small engineering feats and inventions that have helped the internal combustion engine gain its worldwide appeal.