The History of Invention of the Automobile, As Related by Charles Duryea, Inventor of the First American Gasoline-powered Car

In three historically important and lengthy letters, he claims that Americans developed the key concepts and invented the key components of the automobile, and gives names, dates, and other specifics

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Ever since James Watt perfected a steam engine in the 18th century, people have considered harnessing the power of an engine to move a carriage. With the coming of the railroad in the 1820s, even more realized the potential of engine power used for transportation. From about 1820-1840, numerous components of what...

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The History of Invention of the Automobile, As Related by Charles Duryea, Inventor of the First American Gasoline-powered Car

In three historically important and lengthy letters, he claims that Americans developed the key concepts and invented the key components of the automobile, and gives names, dates, and other specifics

Ever since James Watt perfected a steam engine in the 18th century, people have considered harnessing the power of an engine to move a carriage. With the coming of the railroad in the 1820s, even more realized the potential of engine power used for transportation. From about 1820-1840, numerous components of what would ultimately become the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine were invented. For example, William Barnett invented a method for igniting a gas/air mixture within a cylinder using a flame transferred into the cylinder via an ignition. In the 1870s interest picked up significantly, and many men on both sides of the Atlantic worked on how to best achieve this result. In 1872, American George Brayton invented the first commercial liquid-fuelled internal combustion engine. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler took the idea of an internal combustion engine a step further and patented what is generally recognized as a prototype of the modern gas engine.

Charles Duryea and his brother Frank were initially bicycle makers, but later became world-renowned as the inventors of the first American gasoline-powered car. Generally speaking, Charles engineered the automobiles, while Frank built, tested and raced them. On September 21, 1893, the Duryea Brothers first road-tested the vehicle. The Duryea’s “motor wagon” was a used horse drawn buggy that the brothers had purchased for $70 and into which they had installed a 4 HP, single cylinder gasoline engine. The car (buggy) had a friction transmission, spray carburetor and low tension ignition. Frank Duryea test drove it again on November 10— this time in a prominent location: past their garage at 47 Taylor Street in Springfield, Mass. The next day it was reported by The Republican newspaper with great fanfare. The Duryeas then became the first Americans to incorporate an American business for the expressed purpose of building automobiles for sale to the public. In 1895 a Duryea car won the first American car race. It was Duryea’s contention that the Daimler engine was not practical for on-road vehicular use, and that the Duryea car was the first such vehicle in the world.

Dr. Clarence J. Hylander was a professor and an authority on biological and botanical subjects. He was chairman of the Colgate University Botany Department from 1933 to 1943, and executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. In the 1920s he was researching the invention of the automobile and sought information from Duryea. Over three sprawling letters, Duryea gave Hylander a virtual primer on the invention of the automobile, and the crucial role Americans played in its invention. This group comes right from the Hylander descendants, and has never before been offered for sale. Letters of Duryea are very uncommon, this being the first we have ever had. His statements here are not only interesting, but are historically important as shedding light on the earliest years of American and European automobile invention and production. The letters are signed “Duryea” or “Chas. Duryea” in pencil, as was his custom.

Letter 1. Duryea Ridicules Henry’s Ford’s Claim to Be the Chief Inventor

“Ford was confused in his testimony…Got his age 2 years wrong. Not very clear as to when his first car was made. But it is a safe bet that he did not make it in 1893…”

An introductory letter, in which Duryea begins his discussion of automotive pioneers, and states when their first cars were completed

In 1879, George Selden become interested in building a horseless carriage powered by an internal combustion engine. He started with the engine, and when that didn’t work he nonetheless imagined that if it had, he would put it in a wagon of some sort. He made a drawing, drafted a patent application, and submitted this claim on May 8, 1879. Selden spent 16 years watching the nascent car industry ripen, and in 1895 he finally pulled the trigger and got his patent for “the production of a safe, simple and cheap road locomotive light in weight, easy to control, and possessed of sufficient power to overcome any ordinary inclination.” It would have a steering mechanism, either one or several cylinders, a clutch, a brake, and so forth. None of these was described in any detail—nor, as it turned out, needed to be. On November 5, 1895, Selden was issued U.S. patent No. 549,160. He had sought–and, amazingly, got–a patent on the idea of an automobile. Selden then sued car manufacturers Alexander Winton, the Packard Motor Car Company, and Ford for patent infringement. Much information on early car making came out in those suits, which were eventually settled. In the Ford case. Henry Ford claimed to have made the first American car.

Typed letter signed, on his Duryea Laboratories letterhead, Philadelphia, February 4, 1927, to Hylander. “Dear Sir, To yours of the 31st. Been in N.Y.C a couple days and tried to phone you but failed to find you. There is a lot to this early work not generally known and having learned it I am anxious to pass it along lest it never be known. The stuff In the Automobile [magazine] October 28, 1915 to June 1916 was more nearly correct than usual but it was badly collected and lacked a lot. Chas. B. King is a fine fellow and lives near you (1 Beach Ave. Larchmont), but whether he is bashful or just plain busy I do not know. I have coaxed and scolded him for a dozen years trying to extract a connected story from him. Gradually getting it. He was very active in the early days and knows a lot.

“The Selden testimonies are a source of real information and some errors. There were three of them. The Selden—Winton suit of 1902 and the Selden-Ford suit and Selden -Packard suits of about 1906. I do not knew if the N.A.C.C. preserved the Selden-Winton testimony. Mr Branigan, whom you should know, intended to do so. Possibly Herman Cuntz [Herman F. Cuntz of the Automobile Board of Trade] has a set of that.

“One witness [says] that he rode in a Benz car at Chicago in 1893. I have not been able to learn of any Benz car there. Daimler had a quadracycle there. Sturges had an electric.

“Ford was confused in his testimony in the Selden suits. Got his age 2 years wrong. Not very clear as to when his first car was made. But it is a safe bet that he did not make it in 1893 and then do nothing till December 1896 when he started work an his second. King and [his assistant] Barthel (Oliver) both independently say Ford began after seeing the drawings of Pennington in the American Machinist. His engine shows that either he copied P. as they say or P. copied Ford. See American Machinist Nov. 1895 and Jan ’96. The fact is that he made his first car in 1896 and then started a second and better one. The first little engine kept the baby awake; when mother protested it [Ford] said ”Ain’t Edsel a terror”. Some wonderful infant that. Not born till Nov. 1893 and to talk like that before 1894 is a real Ford record.

“Where did you get the idea that [Elwood] Haynes finished his car in 1893? I know Edgar Apperson claims most of the work was done in 1893 but Haynes never claimed that. And the car was not fully finished til after its first run in July 1894. So they do not explain the lost time. These things to show you some of the things to look out for. No more time today. Will be in N.Y. next week. Can you meet me for an evening! Wednesday or Thursday.”

Letter 2: Duryea gives a thorough history of the ideas and inventions that led to the car, and the Americans and others who invented them

He takes personal credit for designing the “engine for auto use”, saying no one else did so “so early”

He denies that Europeans played the key roles in originating ideas, saying, “One fact most writers have not seen is that America is not only the home of the auto but the same causes made it the origin…This will help you to see and show the line of American work ahead of Europe.”

Duryea’s next letter, three days later, is an extraordinary one claiming that Americans were responsible for inventing most of the components of the automobile, that he himself invented the automobile engine, and giving a thorough history of the inventors and inventions to back up his claim.

Typed letter signed, on his Duryea Laboratories letterhead, Philadelphia, February 7, 1927, to Hylander. “Dear Dr. Hylander, “Please accept my desire to help as my apology for writing further. One fact most writers have not seen is that America is not only the home of the auto but the same causes made it the origin. This so unusual view will startle you but please look into it. What enabled the auto to become a successful thing instead of a worthless experiment or a crude toy? The use of liquid fuel, converted to a vapor as needed, electric ignition/spray carburetor for fuel conversion, air tires, rubber for them, petroleum for fuel, throttle control of the engine instead of hit and miss, and light high speed engines using compressed air as a supporter of combustion with crank shaft to take the power from the cylinder, said engines being water cooled or air cooled to take off the dangerous heat. The other essentials were older than the modern wave and were sporadic and therefore contributed no more to one side of the water than to the other. They are knuckle steering (Ackerman), the clutch and change speed gear (Pecquear), and very little else. Date 1815 and 1828. You will find the dates of some of this in The Automobile [magazine] Oct 1915 to June ‘16.

“Dr. C.G. Page gave us the spark coil and vibrator, I think also the primary coil. 1830 plus. See American Journal of Science & Arts (Sillimans). Thomas Davenport gave us the rotary electric motor for starting and lighting. See Shop News Quarterly 3rd quarter of 1911.

“While Barnett in England took out a patent #7615 in 1838 on gas engine. It had open flame ignition and there is nothing to indicate he ever made one or continued to do so. Stuart Perry of N.Y. took a patent in 1844 and shows provision for air cooling and liquid fuel or rosin from which to make the gas as needed. He definitely states he had experience and why he had advantages over known engines. Took out another patent in 1846 and shows water cooling, self starter and used compressed air to get a larger charge in the engine.

“While it was very slight it was a showing of compression. He took a British patent under name of Robinson if I remember aright. About 1846-7. Thus he disclosed on the other side, the liquid fuel idea and how to use it. A far earlier British patent using a free piston proposed to squirt a few drops of turpentine onto the heated cylinder head. But this offered no information one could use in an auto. So we may conclude Perry started us toward proper engines, properly cooled and properly fueled. He forced the air into his cylinder by a pump and so had tho first 2-cycl. It want in under a little compression. So he anticipated in kind the later engines altho his degree of compression was very small.

“After Perry came W.M. Storm who used compression to any degree found good and a dynamo to fire his charge. 1851. About 1835 Dr. Alfred Banks of Philada. began work and showed an engine at N.Y. in fall of 1855. At American Mechanic‘s Fair in Crystal Palace. The Scientific American commented on it several times. Drake advertised once in the ’40s. (Perry advertised also in the ’40s, and wrote a letter pointing out the advantages for locomotion ‘even to China.’ Perry also pointed out the locomotion use. Did any else so early sense the gas engine? For autos. Brayton began in 1853 and had autos in mind. See testimony in Selden/Ford suit of Mrs. Paulman and other Brayton witnesses. And continued till he died 189-. Perry at least made two engines, doubtless more. Brayton made many.

“Lenoir in France contracted for 100 and never made any more. People who saw both said Drake’s engine and Lenoir’s were same. Did Lenoir copy? He had public notice by U.S. patent and Scientific American publication and 5 yrs to do so. H.K. Shanck began about 1884 and exhibited at Ohio State Fair in 1886 or 87 or both. I saw his engine there. In 1887 he put it in a street car and ran it. He continued in a small way till about 1910. Olds, Winton and almost certainly Sintz saw him.

“Both rubber and kerosene (petroleum) are American developments. Goodyear gave the worth vulcanization. The air tires were first used on autos here. Spray carburetor, with electric ignition. I designed engine for auto use. Did another so early? I guess this will help you to see and show the line of American work ahead of Europe.”

This is unquestionably the finest letter on the invention of the automobile that we have ever seen, written by the man in the best position to know.

Letter 3: Duryea Discounts Daimler’s Claims, Saying His Engine Was Insufficient for the Purpose

He says he has written this history because “I am anxious to get the history of the auto set right while men live who know it.”

Typed letter signed, on his Duryea Laboratories letterhead, Philadelphia, February 15, 1927, to Hylander. “The Ford story should be particularly stressed. I have 0.E. Barthel’s sworn testimony which agrees with the King version. Neither knew I was getting the other. Deft’s exhibits in the Selden suits shows Ford’s first car. The dimensions of the engine are published in several places. Engineering Magazine-About May 1914. And in several places of the Ford Books. They closely agree with the Pennington drawings in the Am Machinist of Nov. 1895 and Jan. 1896 at N.Y. Public Library. And this fact should be brought out both for the credit of the writer and the credit due the ones who did the work first.

“So with the originating of the liquid fuel engine in this land. While Barnett 1838 and Pinkus shortly after, both patented in Britain gas engines, they seemed not to see that the liquid fuel engine had a future. Perry in 1844 and #4800 of 1846 saw the liquid fuel future and provided his engines with a vapor maker. The first carburetor. He advocated them for ‘locomotion’ and took out a patent in Britain under the name of Robinson if I remember aright.(I have no girl and so little time to spare to this work that my long talked of card index has not been prepared. I had one started and well along at Beecroft’s in N.Y. City but some one needed the desk and dumped the index in we scrap). This patent was notice to the other side. We already had developed the spark coils by C.G. Page, the dynamo-motor by Thomas Davenport, rubber by discovery and Goodyear, and soon after Drake by bored cased wells made mineral oil commercial. W.M. Storm in 1851 and Drake and Brayton continuously thereafter carried the work forward. Drake’s work could hardly not have been known abroad. Lenoir doubtless copied. Storm used compression to any degree found good. All de Roche did was to use a different method of compression. Otto followed him.

“While Daimler is generally given credit for the small engine, it was really Count de Dion who first made one for auto use and gave it the electric spark with spark advance which adds the speed. In 1895 in Europe. While I – unable to use the [one] Daimler built for shop use, and with hot tube ignition – in 1891-92 brought out the world’s first gasoline engine developed especially for motor vehicles for the common roads. H K. Shanck had fitted his shop engine to a street car in 1887 and Brayton in the late ’70s had fitted to both a bus and street car, his shop and boat engines.

“You will find some of this repetitious. But I hope to help you to see the picture as it is. There is a lot of Brayton info in the Deft‘s Testimony in Selden suit. Some one should discover Brayton and tell the world of him.
He was a wonderful man, kept right at his work till he died in 1892. Shanck produced a few engines til about 1910. I have not been ab]e to learn much of Alfred Drake. M D. Graduated from U of I. in 1823. Thesis “Pressure as a remedy.” Practiced in mid century at 16th and Chestnut. Wrote article for Gas Co. in this city in 1844 as I remember. Of Perry I know even less. From Newport, N.Y. I saw one advertisement of his engine. Sent that info to Beecroft’s index and seem to have failed to keep it myself.

“I am anxious to get the history of the auto set right while men live who know it. And will be glad to help you any way I can but you do not know what to ask for and I do not know what you lack. So we should get together or else you send your stuff to me to look over when you get it pretty well all in. For historic truth, Chas. E. Duryea.”

This is nothing less than an extraordinary history of the invention of the car, right from the pen of Duryea. We are proud to offer it to the public.

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