Automobiles are one of the most universal of modern technologies. They have four wheels and an internal combustion engine fueled most commonly by gasoline, but sometimes also by other liquid petroleum products. They have changed the lives of millions of people, as well as the lives of societies they have helped to shape.
The scientific and technical building blocks for automobiles have existed for several centuries. In the late 1860s Siegfried Marcus, a German, built a crude machine that, although it didn’t have seats, steering, or brakes, was the first automobile to use a fuel-efficient, two-stroke internal combustion engine. The following year Karl Benz, in Germany, adapted an existing horse carriage to use his own four-stroke engine. Benz’s early cars were expensive, but in 1910 Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line and brought auto manufacturing within the range of mass personal transportation. His Model T, which by 1927 had rolled off the production lines in fifteen million units, was cheap enough to allow most Americans to own their own car. It was also light and reliable enough to support a large industry of third-party add-ons.
The automobile has become the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society. It has restructured cities around the speed and freedom of movement it provides to individuals, and encouraged sprawl (straggling, low-density urban development that degrades landscapes and impedes the flow of automobiles). But, as America becomes increasingly auto-dependent, other forces are charting its future.