Top 10 Compelling Firsts In The History Of Automobiles

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By Tom Merola, Automotive Tire Expert | Email:

The history of the automobile is chock full of oddities, ranging from the ambitious to the mind-bogglingly impractical. Exactly who invented the automobile is also up for debate. Earlier accounts often gave credit to Karl Benz, from Germany, for creating the first true automobile in 1886. However, our knowledge of the invention of the true automobile continues to evolve.

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Even things related to the automobile were not spared of the weirdness. For instance, the first cars did not have steering wheels or top covers. Drivers often swallowed flies as they drove down dusty streets.

Therefore, as a tribute to everyone’s favorite form of transportation, here are 10 of the most compelling firsts in the history of automobiles. From the first driver arrested for speeding to the first ever car accident - We cover them all. So buckle up and enjoy our list.


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10. First Rotary Switches in (1900)

rotary switch

Have you ever wondered what is the origin of a such seemingly basic everyday device – a car key? We've grown so accustomed to just turning the key (or pressing a button) and driving away. Not in 1900.

Starting a vehicle back then was a complex process comprising around ten different steps that only a well-trained chauffeur could master. Activating the ignition with a rotary switch was just one of them. So car thieves needed to be pretty determined.

Starting a gas-powered car meant inserting a hand crank into the front of the car and manually rotating it. It required substantial strength and a bit of luck. If all went smoothly, the car started. If the crank kicked back, you could break your wrist or your arm, and the car would still be off. Ever wonder why people in a bad mood are called cranky? Now you know.

In 1910, the first car key was used, but it was only used to lock the ignition. Starting a car still required a driver to crank up the engine. It wasn't until the late 1940s that Chrysler debuted a key that used an ignition tumbler to start a car.

9. First Driver Arrested For Speeding (1899)

first arrest

The first speeding infraction in the U.S. was committed by a New York City taxi driver in an electric car on May 20, 1899. The driver was Jacob German who drove for the Electric Vehicle Company, which leased its electric taxicabs to be used around New York.

German was traveling at the blistering speed of 12 miles per hour down Lexington Street in Manhattan. At that time, the speed limit was 8 miles per hour and a whopping 4 miles per hour when turning.

The arresting officer was John Schuessler of the Bicycle Squad of New York. Schuessler went after German’s car with his bicycle and arrested the lawbreaker. Reporting the news, The New York Times wrote that German was traveling at “breakneck speed” and “so reckless.” German did not get a ticket for speeding, but he spent some time in jail.

8. The First Speed Limit Set Was 12 MPH (1901)

first speed limit

Ironically, The first speed limit for motor vehicles was set in Connecticut in May 1901 at 12 mph. The same “breakneck speed” Jacob German was arrested for two years prior. That is because Earlier speed limits were targeted at horse-drawn carriages, not motor vehicles.

When cars came along, they just used the same speed limits imposed on horse-drawn carriages. However, the speed limit passed in Connecticut was targeted at motor vehicles.

The path to Connecticut’s 1901 speed limit legislation began when Representative Robert Woodruff submitted a bill to the State General Assembly proposing a motor-vehicles speed limit of 8 mph within city limits and 12 mph outside.

The law passed in May 1901, but increased the limit of speed to 12 mph in cities and 15 mph on country roads. On the heels of this landmark legislation, New York City introduced the world’s first comprehensive traffic code in 1903. However, it was a slow process across the nation - As late as 1930, a dozen states had no speed limit, while 28 states did not even require a driver’s license to operate a motor vehicle.

7. First Automobile Accident (1891)

first car accident

The state of Ohio was the site of numerous firsts in automobile history. Among these firsts was the first automobile accident. In 1891, James William Lambert was involved in the first automobile accident in American history.

Lambert was driving an early gasoline-powered buggy, when he ran into a little trouble. The buggy, also carrying passenger James Swoveland, hit a tree root sticking out of the ground. Lambert lost control and the vehicle swerved and crashed into a hitching post. Both men suffered minor injuries.

However, many argue that Lambert's crash shouldn't be considered the first because it didn't involve more than one vehicle. Oddly, there is no reliable information available regarding the first time one car crashed into another car.

Interestingly, there is a popular rumor about another accident in Ohio. The rumor says that there were only two cars in the entire state of Ohio, and they somehow managed to crash into each other in 1895.

6. The First Steering Wheel (1894)

first steering wheel

Believe it or not, cars did not always have steering wheels. Hard to imagine, as the steering wheel is the philosophical autonomy of a car. No steering means no control of your destiny.

When the first cars hit the road, early engineers wanted to direct the vehicle in similar ways to a horse-drawn carriage. This meant the driver guided with reigns, pulling left to turn left and right to go right. The closest steering system to this at the time was the tiller, used in some boats.

In a boat, the tiller would direct the angle of the rudder behind the boat. A car tiller would redirect the angle of the front wheel. That all changed when Alfred Vacheron first used a wheel for steering his car in the 1894 Paris-Rouen race.

Driving did not become any better after the invention of the steering wheel because cars did not have power steering.

5. The First Speedometer (1899)

first speedometer

New York inventor Joseph Jones created the first gauge to measure auto speed in 1899, dubbing his invention the "speedometer."

Jones developed the device after his wife asked while they were driving a steam-powered car he had built how fast they were going. When Jones admitted that he didn't know, she suggested he come up with a way to find out. He did so, patenting the speedometer in 1903 and reportedly making a fortune off of it.

It wasn't until 1910 that automobile manufacturers began to include the speedometer as standard equipment.

4. The First Car Radio (1922)

first store radio

Car radios date back to 1922, as the story goes, on a cool summer evening in the 1920’s, two young couples who were double dating parked up on a lookout under the moonlight and started to get romantic. That was when one of the young ladies said that the night would be even better if they could listen to some music in the car.

That got the young men thinking – both were part-time inventors – and it wasn’t long before they were taking apart a home radio and trying to get it to work in a car. They soon had a prototype car radio that they called the “5T71”. But the 5T71 wasn’t a very appealing name.

Since they were putting radios into motorized cars, their radios became “Motorola,” for motorized Victrola. So in 1930, Galvin Manufacturing introduced the first car radio as the “Motorola.” It was one of the first commercially successful car radios, and the first major product for the company that later became Motorola, Inc.

3. The First Seat Belts (1949)

first seat belt

While it might seem like seatbelts—and mandatory seatbelt laws—have been around as long as automobiles, the first seatbelt wasn’t actually invented until the 19th century. Edward J. Claghorn of New York was granted the first safety belt patent in 1885.

However, his application pre-dated mass-produced cars and basically described the kind of device that repair people use today to hook themselves to telephone poles. The first factory-installed car seat belts came from U.S. automaker Nash around 1949, although some researchers claim the now-closed firm didn't add them until as late as 1952.

The modern seatbelt made its first appearance in 1959, when Nils Bohlin—an engineer at Volvo, invented the three-point seatbelt. It was Volvo that then encouraged the use of seatbelts by becoming the first manufacturer to offer standard seatbelts in every one of its automobiles.

2. The First Car Air Conditioning (1939)

air condition

Today, few people would consider buying a car that’s not equipped with air conditioning. It’s seen as a necessity, not a luxury. That wasn’t always the case, though. The first car with factory A/C wasn’t produced until 1939.

Throughout the 1930s, automakers experimented with a variety of systems. In one example of this, General Motors head researcher Charles Kettering loaded blocks of ice in the back of his Cadillac Town Car to measure the energy required to

Now-defunct U.S. automaker Packard unveiled the first built-in auto air conditioner at a 1939 auto show. The device cooled, filtered and dehumidified air using refrigerated coils set into a duct located behind the car's rear seats.

By the 1950s, automakers began to catch up. Luxury car buyers quickly came to see A/C as a highly desirable feature, and by the 1970s, it could be found in more than 70 percent of new cars.

1. The First Fatal Car Accident In The US (1899)

henry bliss

Sixty-nine-year-old Henry H. Bliss was the first person ever killed by a car in the United States.

On September 13, 1899, Bliss was knocked from a streetcar at West 74th Street and Central Park West in New York City, as he was exiting a south bound 8th Avenue trolley car. An electric-powered taxicab struck him and he hit the pavement and crushed his head and chest.

He was taken by ambulance to Roosevelt Hospital, but his injuries were too severe to survive and Bliss died from his sustained injuries the next morning. Arthur Smith, the driver of the taxicab, was arrested and charged with manslaughter. He was later aacquitted.

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