Who invented the car?

The Benz 1.5, designed by Karl Benz
The Benz Motor Car No. 1 is a three-wheeled, gas-powered horseless carriage. (Image credit: Science & Society Picture Library / Contributor via Getty Images)

Working out who invented the car is a long and winding road, and pinpointing a single person responsible is not a simple matter. If you rewind the development of cars past GPS, past antilock brakes and automatic transmissions and even past the Model T, eventually you'll get to the Benz Motor Car No. 1, the missing link between cars and horse-drawn buggies.

Karl Benz patented the three-wheeled Motor Car, known as the "Motorwagen," in 1886. It was the first true, modern automobile, meaning Benz is most often identified as the man who invented the car. Benz also patented his own throttle system, spark plugs, gear shifters, a water radiator, a carburetor and other fundamentals to the automobile. Benz eventually built a car company that still exists today as the Daimler Group.

Early history of the car

Benz patented the first gasoline-powered car, but he wasn't the original visionary of self-propelled vehicles. Some highlights in the history of the car:

  • Leonardo da Vinci had sketched a horseless, mechanized cart in the early 1500s. Like many of his designs, it wasn't built in his lifetime. However, a replica is on display at the Chateau Clos Lucé, Leonardo's last home and now a museum. 
  • Sailing chariots, propelled by the wind were in use in China when the first Westerners visited, and in 1600, Simon Steven of Holland built one that carried 28 people and covered 39 miles (63 km) in two hours, according to General Motors.
  • Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, a Frenchman, built a self-propelled vehicle with a steam engine in 1769. The cart, designed to move artillery pieces, moved at a walking pace (2 mph or 3.2 km/h) and had to stop every 20 minutes to build a new head of steam.

"The word 'car' has meant different things at different times. At the end of the 19th Century, a car was a “streetcar” i.e. a tram. Streetcars before that were 'horse cars' which were omnibuses pulled by horses on rails. The word 'car' became available to what was previously called a 'horseless carriage' or possibly a motor car. The 'automobile', as they call it in America, was itself an import from the French," Tom Standage, author of "A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next" (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021) told All About History magazine. 

The first car

Internal combustion engines

Vital to the modern automobile is the internal combustion engine. This type of engine uses an explosive combustion of fuel to push a piston within a cylinder. The piston's movement turns a crankshaft that is connected to the car's wheels of a drive shaft. Like the car itself, the internal combustion engine has a long history. An incomplete list of developments includes:

  • 1680: Christiaan Huygens, better known for his contributions as an astronomer, designed but never built an internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder.
  • 1826: Englishman Samuel Brown altered a steam engine to burn gasoline and put it on a carriage, but this proto-automobile also never gained widespread adoption.
  • 1858: Jean Joseph-Etienne Lenoir patented a double-acting, electric spark-ignition internal combustion engine fueled by coal gas. He improved on that engine so it would run on petroleum, attached it to a three-wheeled wagon and traveled 50 miles.
  • 1873: American engineer George Brayton developed a two-stroke kerosene engine. It is considered to be the first safe and practical oil engine.
  • 1876: Nikolaus August Otto patented the first four-stroke engine in Germany.
  • 1885: Gottlieb Daimler of Germany invented the prototype of the modern gasoline engine. 
  • 1895: Rudolf Diesel, a French inventor, patented the diesel engine that was an efficient, compression ignition, internal combustion engine.

"We generally think of the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen as the first proper car. Carl Benz built an entirely new vehicle around an internal combustion engine and used bicycle parts to do it. It was really a motorized bicycle so this is what makes the car interesting. Its innovation required lots of people to try different things and, although this seems obvious in retrospect, it wasn’t at the time," said Standage.

History of electric cars

An electric motor cab from 1897

Electric vehicles are increasing in popularity today, but have a history that dates back to the late 19th century. (Image credit: Heritage Images / Contributor)

Electric cars were available in the middle of the 19th century, but fell out of favor after Henry Ford developed his Model T, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In recent years, electric cars have made a comeback, though. Around 535,000 electric cars were sold in the United States in 2021, according to CNBC. This technology, like the internal combustion engine, also has a long history that is difficult to point to one inventor. 

Two inventors are typically credited with independently inventing the first electric car: Robert Anderson, a Scottish inventor, and Thomas Davenport, an American inventor, in the 1830s, according to AutomoStory. The first rechargeable battery was invented in 1865 by Gaston Plante, a French physicist, which replaced the non-rechargable batteries used in early models of the electric car. A few of the innovations following include:

  • Camille Faure, a French chemist, in 1881 improved the lead-acid battery design by Plante to make electric vehicles a viable choice for drivers.
  • William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, was the first to successfully build an electric car in the United States in 1891.
  • Camille Jénatzy, a Belgian race car driver, built and raced an electric car, setting a new land speed record of 62 mph (100 km/h) in 1899. His car was called La Jamais Contente (which means "the never satisfied").
  • Ferdinand Porsche, a German automotive engineer, invented the first hybrid car in 1900, according to the official Porsche website
  • Thomas Edison developed a nickel-alkaline battery in 1907 that was more durable and less hazardous than the lead-acid battery used in cars, according to Rutgers University. The battery didn't take to most consumers since it had a higher initial cost, but it was implemented in the delivery trucks of several companies due to its durability and longer ranges.

Electric cars continued to gain popularity and in 1895, the first automobile race in the United States — a 52-mile "dash" from Chicago to Waukegan, Ill., and back, which took the winner 10 hours 23 minutes (average speed 5 mph / 8 km/h) — featured six entries, and two of them were electric cars, according to Smithsonian magazine. By 1900, the New York City taxi service had about 60 electric cars and approximately a third of cars in the United States were electric, according to the Department of Energy.

When Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, the inexpensive and high quality gasoline powered car became very popular and the decline of electric cars began, according to the Department of Energy. By the 1920s, gasoline had become cheaper and more readily available, and more Americans were traveling greater distances. Electric cars didn't have the range that gas-powered cars had, and electricity was still not readily available in many rural cities, making the gasoline-powered cars the automobiles of choice.

"At the beginning of the 20th Century, electric cars were very briefly more popular than internal combustion engine cars in America. However, they had very bad batteries. Electric cars are only good today because of batteries that were initially developed for laptops and camcorders," said Standage.

In 1976, Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act due to rising oil prices, gasoline shortages and dependencies on foreign oil. Many car companies began to research and design new fuel-efficient and electric options, although not much happened until the 1990s.

The Toyota Prius, developed and released in Japan in 1997, was the world's first mass-produced hybrid car and was available around the world by 2000. The Honda Insight hybrid car was released in the United States in 1999. 

Tesla Motors began development and production on a luxury all-electric car that would travel more than two hundred miles on a single charge in 2003 with the first model released in 2008. The Chevrolet Volt, released in 2010, was the first available plug-in hybrid that used the gasoline engine to extend the range of the automobile when the battery was depleted. The Nissan LEAF was also released in 2010 and was more readily available to the public than Tesla's Model S.

Today, nearly every major and many smaller automobile companies are developing their own electric and hybrid models.

Karl Benz : Car pioneer

Karl and Bertha Benz

Karl Benz (right), inventor of the first practical, modern automobile, pictured next to his wife Bertha in 1893. (Image credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

Karl Benz gets the credit for inventing the automobile because his car was practical, used a gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine and worked like modern cars do today.

Benz was born in 1844 in Karlsruhe, a city in southwest Germany. His father was a railway worker who died in an accident when Benz was 2 years old. Although poor, Benz's mother supported him and his education. He was admitted to the University of Karlsruhe at age 15 and graduated in 1864 with a mechanical engineering degree.

Benz's first venture of an iron foundry and sheet-metal workshop flopped. However his new bride, Bertha Ringer, used her dowry to fund a new factory to build gas engines. With the profits Benz was free to start building a horseless, gas-powered carriage.

Benz had built three prototypes of his Motor Car in private by 1888, when Bertha decided it was time for some press. Bertha took the latest model in the early morning and drove her two teenage sons 66 miles to her mother's home. She had to improvise repairs along the way with shoe leather, a hair pin and her garter.

The successful trip showed Benz how to improve the car, and showed a dubious public that automobiles were useful. Benz demonstrated the Model 3 Motorwagen at the World's Fair in Paris the following year.

"This trip has been mythologized but there is a kernel of truth to it. During this trip, Bertha figured out various things such as that the brakes needed to be better and a better lower gear was required to get up hills. She actually stopped at a cobbler’s and had him put leather on the brake pads to improve them. Carl then adopted that approach," said Standage. 

"The fact that Bertha showed you could use this car for a road trip (she traveled 40 miles) gave Carl the confidence that he actually had a sellable product. He put it on sale at a trade fair and people were amazed. He started selling them, along with the rights, to other people around Europe so they could manufacture them."

Benz died in 1929, just two years after he merged with fellow car-maker Gottlieb Daimler's company to form what is today the Daimler Group, manufacturer of the Mercedes-Benz.

Additional resources

The technology of cars has developed at incredible speeds, as our breakdown of Formula 1 race cars exemplifies.

If all of this car technology information has got you interested in learning more, then our examination of the gearbox and how it works will be for you.


Lauren Cox
Live Science Contributor
Lauren Cox is a contributing writer for Live Science. She writes health and technology features, covers emerging science and specializes in news of the weird. Her work has previously appeared online at ABC News, Technology Review and Popular Mechanics. Lauren loves molecules, literature, black coffee, big dogs and climbing up mountains in her spare time. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Smith College and a master of science degree in science journalism from Boston University.
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