The Cugnot Steam Auto

What was the first “automobile” … ?

The first modern “automobiles”—self-propelled wheeled carriages run by gasoline-powered internal-combustion engines—were built in Germany by Karl Friedrich Benz and Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler in 1885. But if we look at an “automobile” as being simply a self-propelled wheeled vehicle, the history goes back further, and the earliest one that we know about was a steam-powered cart built in 1769 by a French Army officer named Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot.

The idea of using the power of steam pressure to propel something is very old. In the 1st century CE, in Egypt, the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria was experimenting with the concept. By placing two curved nozzles on a hollow spherical ball (an apparatus he called an aeolipile) , he was able to light a fire underneath it, boil the water inside, and direct the escaping steam to rapidly spin the ball. It was the basic principle of the steam engine, though nobody at the time recognized the significance of it, and Hero used his devices mostly for amusement. (A similar device had been mentioned 100 years earlier by the Roman writer Vitruvius, but he had given no detailed description of it.) In his book Pneumatica, Hero presented around 80 designs for “automata”, self-powered apparatus such as a self-opening door, a coin-operated holy-water dispenser, and various automated mechanical figures of bulls, humans and dragons. Some of these were steam-operated, and others used hydraulic or pneumatic pressure.

The steam engine did not see any real practical use, however, until the 18th century. By this time, coal was a vital fuel for warming London’s homes in winter, and coal-mining was an important industry in England. One problem that plagued the miners, however, was groundwater that flooded into the mine shafts and inundated them. In 1712, a mining engineer named Thomas Newcomen produced a steam-powered engine that ran a mechanical pump to remove water from the mines, and this was then improved by James Watt. By 1765 Watt was using his more efficient steam engine to propel river ships, and the Newcomen/Watt engine soon appeared in factory machinery and birthed the English Industrial Revolution.

In France, the Foreign Minister Etienne-Joseph Duc de Choiseul had been looking for ways to revamp and modernize the French Army after its disastrous defeat in the Seven Years War, and he watched the English experiments with steam engines with interest. In 1769, with the support of General Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, Choiseul began to modernize the entire French Army artillery system, using a standardized cannon pattern (which would later become famous as the “Napoleon”) that could be produced easily with interchangeable parts. 

As part of the new “Gribeauval System”, with its emphasis on mobility and speed, Choiseul sought to reduce the artillery’s dependence on horses, and thought that the new steam engines from England may hold the key. So the task was assigned to the 44-year old artillery engineer Cugnot.

The machine he produced was impressive.  Measuring almost 25 feet long and weighing nearly 4.5 tons, the contraption was capable of carrying a cannon barrel weighing over half a ton and towing a load of five tons, at a speed of around 2.5mph. Dubbed the “fardier a vapeur” (“steam cart”), Cugnot’s  machine was constructed with a frame of heavy oak beams. A winch at the back end was used to hoist a cannon barrel into place. The driver sat on a bench amidships. Behind him was a large wooden barrel that held water, and this was fed into the large copper boiler at the front. The boiler was fueled by a wood fire which turned the water into steam and directed it into two metal cylinders which were forced up and down by the pressure. These cylinders then turned the heavy wooden drive wheel to propel the cart forward.

There were some issues. The driver could steer the cart by moving a metal lever that turned the drive wheel (using a crude form of “rack and pinion” steering gears), but this was made difficult by the weight of the cylinders above it. There were no brakes for stopping, and in one of his first test rides at the Arsenal in Versailles, Cugnot drove the heavy cart into a barracks wall—which has been dubbed “the first automobile accident”. The boiler only held enough wood for about fifteen minutes of steam, and the vehicle had to be stopped around every 100 yards, refueled, and allowed to build up steam pressure before it could be moved again. Finally, the cart proved to be too heavy and cumbersome to maneuver over rough terrain.

Although it was an amazing technological breakthrough for its time, Cugnot’s machine was simply not practical for military use in the field, and the French Army stuck with its horses instead. But King Louis XIV was so impressed by it that he assigned Cugnot a royal pension of 600 livres per year. At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, former royal military officers became targets for the guillotine, and after his pension was cut off Cugnot fled to Belgium. He was finally invited back to France by Napoleon Bonaparte, given a new pension, and lived in Paris until his death in 1804.

Cugnot’s fardier a vapeur was kept at the Arsenal for some years, then was moved to the Musee des Arts et Metiers in 1800. It remains there on display. A replica can also be seen in Cugnot’s home village of Void-Vacon.

In 2014, the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum in St Petersburg FL built its own replica, which is now on exhibit.

Some photos of the replica Cugnot fardier a vapeur in Florida.

Replica Cugnot steam cart

The replica is fully functional

This barrel held water for the boiler

This basket carried wood for fuel

Copper boiler

The boiler was fed through this door

These two steam pistons alternated to drive the wheel

The drive wheel

The driver steered with this iron lever

Rack and pinion steering

Winches for loading cannon

The cannon is slung underneath

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