Cowan ch. 10

the automobile was revolutionary compared to the the railroad because it allowed individualized travel

automobiles and automobility:
Origins of the automobile:
before that there was the horse and carriage
Inventions of self-propelled road vehicles started in the late 18th and early 19th century, but low pressure steam engines just didn't make a worthwhile vehicle.  (more early history )


 Cugnot's Vehicle
what you need is an internal combustion engine (or a much improved steam engine or battery):
            Daimler automobile
  Daimler 1886

you also needed decent roads, and the bicycle boom provided these, as well as a sense of the market.  The automobile probably could have been built 20 years earlier, but the interest was not there.

European automobiles were copied in the US

 1893 Duryea
By the end of 1895 something like three hundred companies were building and testing experimental automobiles The market had two segments
  1897 Curved Dash Olds
 Henry Ford
Henry Ford

Henry Ford

Ford's beginnings (Ford biography)
  • son of a Dearborn farmer, but with a talent for mechanics that led him to a series of engineering jobs before he got into automobiles
  • In 1896 Ford was chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Co. (now Detroit Edison).
  • In that year he built a car called the Quadricycle and started looking for backers to produce it commercially (he later claimed to have built a car in 1892 but there is no evidence for that but Ford's claims).

 Ford's Quadricycle
  • in 1899 he found a group of businessmen to support him, but they got impatient that he was building cars for automobile racing (which he thought was critical publicity) rather than concentrating on setting up commercial production.  Ford and his backers parted ways in 1902 and his former backers found another engineer, Henry M. Leland, who gave the company a new name--Cadillac--and got it into commercial production.

Struggle to define the automobile
 Brush Runabout
  • Ford started the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with a new set of backers.
    • The Dodge brothers became stockholders in return for providing chassis, engines, and transmissions for the first Ford cars.
  • Ford initially made medium-priced cars--$1000-$1500.
  • by 1910 the industry was consolidating painfully
  • General Motors was about to go under under excessive debt and was saved only by new investors who advanced cash on very harsh terms (6% interest plus a 17% commission).
  • many of the smaller companies went bankrupt, and even the larger ones were better at finance than at solving technological problems.
  • a number of makers were thinking about low cost cars (an idea that was not tried in Europe until after its success in America).  One notable example after the curved dash Oldsmobile was the Brush Runabout, which sold for $500 and had 10 HP and all-wood construction.  It didn't hold up very well.
  • the key invention of this period was the electric starter
    • It was invented by Henry M. Leland and Charles F. Kettering.  Leland became interested in the problem because a friend of his had died in a bizarre accident.  He went to the assistance of a lady whose car had stalled, and when he turned the crank to start it, the crank handle kicked back and broke his jaw.  He died of the resulting gangrene.
    • the electric starter meant that women and older men could drive cars

Ford first invents a better car, then leads assembly-line revolution (more on Ford as a businessman)

  • Ford first designed a mass market car and then studied how to cut costs in production.  Mass market meant not only low cost but sturdy, easy to operate, and easy to repair.  Ford was one of the first to use alloy steel in America.
    Ford's engineers may have had the idea for the assembly line as early as 1908, but they didn't want to delay introduction of the model T to implement it.  The Model T was the first low cost ($825-$850) high power (20 HP) car, also light (about 1,200 pounds) and fairly easy to drive, with a two-speed, foot-controlled "planetary" transmission.  It was immediately very popular--compared to cars costing $2000.  Ford decided in 1909 to produce nothing else.

 Model T
  • Ford's business manager had calculated that to really hit the mass market the price had to be brought down to $600, and that could not be done with existing production methods.
  • between 1913 and 1914 conveyer belts were introduced throughout the factory
  • time required to assemble the chassis fell from 12 hours 30 minutes to 2 hours 40 minutes, and then by 1914 to 1 1/2 hours
  • price of Model T dropped to $360 by 1916 and to $290 by 1927 (its last year of production).  577,000 sold in 1916.  Within a decade all automobile manufacturers were using the assembly line.

Ford assembly line and Diego Rivera painting (Detroit Institute of Arts)
  • now Ford could hire unskilled workers
    • He paid average wages: $2.38 for a nine hour day.  Workers hated the assembly line and turnover reached over 300%
    • in 1914 Ford began to offer selected workers $5 a day and an eight hour day--about twice the going rate in Detroit at the time.  At one point fire hoses had to be used to disperse the mob of applicants around the Highland Park plant.
    • Between 1914 and 1916, the company's profits doubled from $30 million to $60 million.
    • Ford did believe that the gains made by improving techniques of production should be passed on to society in three ways--to stockholders through dividends, to consumers through lower prices, and to labor through higher wages.  He understood that the worker was also a consumer.  He wasn't fond of stockholders, particularly after the Dodge brothers set themselves up as competitors.  In fact in 1916 (a year with record profits) he paid such low dividends that stockholders sued and won. Ford quotes

 Model T Automobile Plant from site

Meanwhile Sloan at General Motors was revolutionizing organization and marketing
  • gave more responsibility to production divisions--decentralized organization
  • General Motors made cars for different markets (from Chevrolet at the bottom to Cadillac at the top) and pioneered the annual model change and a choice of colors.  Worked out close relations with dealers.  Consumers began to look for styling and excitement, not the lowest possible price.
  • Ford made the Model T until 1927--15 million of them--nearly driving the company into bankruptcy.  Finally when he had to face reality and shut down Model T production he didn't have a new model designed yet.

 1927 Chevrolet
Consider the advantages and limitations of mass production.  Automobile racing and luxury automobiles as showing important ways that automobile technology went in different directions from the practical car predicted by Henry Ford

 road conditions in 1920s
  • roads had begun to be improved for bicycles, but the automobile represented the need for a fundamental shift.  Conflict between the needs of horses and automobiles--there was a sudden  spurt in horseshoe patents to provide horseshoes that would help horses manage paved roads.
  • road maps (and street names) were a consequence of the automobile--the first national road atlas was published in 1927
  • For the history of licensing drivers see: Licensing Cars and Drivers
  • Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles opened in 1926 (but it was not limited access)
  • the automobile trip culture had developed by the 1920s--motels, campgrounds
    • the first gas station was opened by Standard Oil in 1912 (gas station museum)
    • Visits to national parks increased 4-fold during the 1920s.
    • The first drive-in movie opened in 1933 in New Jersey--by the early 1950s there were 4,000 of them.
    • A&W root beer stands
    • Burma Shave signs
    • The first drive-in restaurant was either Bob's Boy in 1936 or Royce Hailey's Pig Stand in Dallas Texas in the early 1940s (by the 1960s these were haunts for rowdy teenagers and families were looking for another alternative--the chain fast-food restaurant)
    • roadside architecture, roadside stores with giant cows, world's largest sixpack, and of course our very own peachoid
    • Disneyland opened in 1955--the model for a new generation of amusement parks linked to highways rather than streetcars or trains.

 Los Angeles from

The interstate highway system
  • California opened its first freeway in 1940.  In 1947 the state passed a law that expanded the 19 miles of freeway to 300 miles ten years later--by 1980 there were 12,500 miles.  54% of the funding came from the state gasoline tax.
  • Began as a cold war idea, with the idea that federal funding was needed to have a system that would allow easy movement of troops.  Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 committed the country to spending $50 billion to construct 41,000 miles of interstate highways.  Good deal for the states--the federal gov't paid 90% of the costs.  By 1973 82% had been constructed.
  •  engineering marvels of the interstate highway system
  • Chain motels displaced the old local motor courts--the first Holiday Inn was opened in 1952.

The Gas Station & Auto Service Collectibles Web Site
 1930s Shell Gas Station
gas station
                in the shape of a shell Gasoline ( petroleum history sites )
  • Automobiles run on gasoline, a relatively light fraction of crude oil.  Diesel fuel (which is essentially the same as home heating oil) is a relatively heavy fraction.
  • The heaviest fractions (bitumen or rock asphalt) had been used for centuries for waterproofing and after 1800 for roads.  Kerosene was used in lamps from the 1850s.
  • In 1859 an American industrialist, George H. Bissell began a deliberate search for oil.  They chose a site in Pennsylvania, drilled through 70 feet of bedrock, and used the oil from the well for illuminating gas, lubricating oil, and an excellent lamp oil.   Within 15 years production in the Pennsylvania field had reached 10 million (360 lb) barrels a year.
  • John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in 1870.  By building a pipeline system he soon gained control of 90% of a rapidly-growing industry and became for a while the richest person in the world.
                of Pennsylvania showing oil area in NW
Beginnings of the Petroleum Industry
 early oil refinery
                oil industry
  • The oil was distilled to separate the fractions--first gasoline (1.5 to 15 percent, depending on the crude), which at first was a nuisance because it was highly inflammable and had no use, then kerosene, and then lubricating oil.  
  • With the popularity of the automobile suddenly gasoline was in greater demand than the other fractions, and cracking was invented by William Burton at Standard Oil in 1913.  Heavier fractions are converted into lighter ones by subjecting them to high temperature and pressure to break down the chains of carbon atoms into shorter ones.  Industrial research labs competed to find more efficient ways of doing this, most important catalytic cracking with a platinum catalyst in the 1920s.
  • problem of engine knock arose just before WWI as refineries tried to widen the cut.  Solved by the 1922 introduction of tetraethyl lead as a fueld additive.  To prevent lead from fouling the engine ethylene dibromide was added to react with the lead residue and make sure it was funneled out of the exhaust system into the atmosphere (at the time the only questions raised were about hazards of the lead to refinery workers).
  • leaded gasoline was phased out starting in the 1970s because the lead that got into the atmosphere and fell into the soil in heavily traveled areas was identified as a significant cause of lead poisoning.
                of US energy production

Oil prices:
  • Have we already hit the peak of oil production?  
  • Is the reason for high prices wars and other instability?
  • Is it a matter of supply and demand?

  • Between 1870 and 1920 New York City expanded from less than a million to 5 1/2 million population and from 22 to almost 300 square miles.  Density also increased in the center city with the invention of the elevator and steel frame construction.
  • Urban services--particularly handling garbage and sewage and providing water--had a hard time keeping up.  The first suburban explosion resulted from streetcars.
  • This let to a major reform movement around the turn of the century--the Progressives invented urban planning.  By about 1910 they had the ideas of a central business district, zoning, a system of parks and parkways, and planning roads to allow circulation--including the first limited access highways.  These plans were very successful--the value of central property went up and therefore the tax base.
  • What did middle class people want?--safety, uniformity, yards, etc.
    • The automobile corresponded with American values on independence and privacy.
    • To get this people were willing to move further and further out.  In the 1920s Los Angeles opened 3200 subdivisions.
    • Planned towns-- Levittowns (first in 1949).  Only in 1960s were proposals for cluster zoning to leave open space successful.
    • The attached garage replaced the front porch, and large lots allowed space-wasting one story ranch houses.
    • Suburbs were very segregated, not just by race but by income level and often ethnicity (red-lining), also further separated the world of men and women.

 Traffic in Los Angeles, 1949

What does Cowan mean by automobility? 
Cowan structures her chapter around the idea that the impact of the automobile was not and probably could not have been predicted.


 mid-size family car of 2010, according to Ford
 compare Toyoto Prius

 Smart Road
Smart Roads:
  • when you widen roads then more people move further out of the city--amount of traffic increases to fill the roads
  • what can you do?
  • Europeans pay much higher prices for gasoline because their governments pay for road improvements with money raised by the gasoline tax (which means that people pay taxes for roads roughly in proportion to how much they use them), while in the U.S. the money for road improvements comes from income and property taxes
  • increase the cost: raise gas taxes, road pricing
  • computer control of cars on the road--this allows smoother traffic flow so more cars can move faster on the same roads
  • you may not like the idea, but some people think this is going to be the next big thing

This page written and copyright Pamela E. Mack
HIST 122
last updated 7/21/07