10 Inventions That Changed Cars Forever

10 Inventions That Changed Cars Forever

Posted July 02, 2014 by Ken Kupchik


A car "shovel" meant to reduce the number of casualties among pedestrians (Paris 1924)

Cars have revolutionized transportation and allowed mobility on an unprecedented scale. Without cars, we would be at the mercy of public transportation, horses, or our own two feet. The cars that we drive today, however, are a far cry from the original automobiles, which had few safety features, relatively simple engineering, and weren't very fast. Over the years, innovation has brought dynamic changes to the automobile, one breakthrough at a time. Here are the most pivotal inventions for the automobile:

1) Combustion Engine - The most important part of an automobile is the engine, powering the rest of the vehicle. Internal combustion engines power cars with the combustion of fuel and oxygen which occurs in a combustion chamber. Without this invention, we wouldn't have the car in its present form. Although the parts that ultimately contributed to the development of combustion engines were invented as far back as the 3rd Century, it wasn't until commercial petroleum drilling became commonplace in the second half of the 19th Century that the engines were able to be developed for widespread adoption. 

2) Rubber Tires - You may not enjoy paying for tires for your car every other year, but without them you would probably be stuck. Before the advent of rubber tires, wagon tires were made of iron molded on top of wooden wheels. The first pneumatic tire was developed by Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop for his son's bicycle in 1887, but it wasn't widely adopted for the next several decades as the mass production capabilities were worked out. Now if only someone could make them half as expensive. 

3) Rear-View Mirror - The person driving behind you in traffic thanks you for this invention. In 1906, a woman by the name of Dorothy Levitt wrote a book called The Woman and the Car where she mentioned that women should carry a little mirror with them while driving so they could hold it up to see who was behind them. It wasn't until 1914 that manufacturers officially introduced mirrors into everyday cars. However, a man named Elmer Burger is credited with officially inventing the rear-view mirror as he was the first to develop one that became incorporated in cars. 

4) Electric Starter - There may be some people out there who would prefer to crank-start your car rather than turn a key, but those people are what you would call "insane." When cars were started by hand, not only was it doubtful that the car would even start, but the crank could also kick back, injuring the person trying to start it, breaking their thumb, hand, or wrist. In 1911, two inventors from the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company filed a patent for the first electrical starter in America. They had realized that a small motor powered by electricity could generate enough power to crank the engine for starting, replacing the need for a human to do it. Take a moment to thank the inventors the next time you turn the key and start your car. 

5) Gas Gauge (Fuel Gauge) -  To be quite honest with you, I'm not sure how people knew it was time to fill up their car with gas before a measuring gauge was developed. Maybe they just crossed their fingers when they left their house in the morning. In any case, in 1917, John Gilbert Collison invented the dashboard gas gauge and took the idea to General Motors Co. in 1920. It was universally adopted, and now serves a very useful purpose. Some people use it to make sure they know when to fill up their gas tank, and some use it to see how long they can drive with the arrow on 'E' before the car stops moving. 

6) Power Steering - If power steering had never been invented, we would all probably have bigger arm muscles, but driving wouldn't be nearly as effortless as it is now. While the earliest power-steering systems can be traced back as far as 1876 to a man by the name of Fitts (yes, this is all anyone knows about him), it wasn't commercially adopted until Chrysler added a steering system to their 1951 Chrysler Imperial, and called it "Hydraguide." Before power steering made it into everyday cars, it was used in military armored vehicles during WW2. 

7) Turn- Signal - The way many people drive today, you would assume that they still haven't realized that their car actually does have turn-signals. Despite being taken for granted, turn-signals are a majorly important automotive safety feature. In the 1920's and 1930's, vehicles offered retractable "trafficators" to indicate turning. They were basically arrows that swung out on each side of the car to signal where you were going. They weren't very practical as they would break off, or get stuck. The modern turn signal was thankfully patented in 1938, and widely adopted thereafter. Now if only there was some way to get the word out about these.

8) Cruise Control - Cruise control may not seem like a futuristic function, but it certainly was if you were around when it was first developed. The 'governor' dates back to the 17th century, and was essentially the precursor for cruise control, although it was used on steam engines. In 1948, mechanical engineer and inventor Ralph Teetor came up with a "speedostat" or what ended up becoming modern day cruise-control, for the absolute funniest reason ever. He would drive in the car with his lawyer, and would get annoyed as the lawyer would speed up and then slow down as he talked.  

9) Seat-Belts - Countless lives have been saved by the invention of seat belts. Their invention can be traced back to harnesses for firefighters and industrial workers as they were being hoisted or lowered to perform their jobs. The precursor to the automobile seat belt was the harnesses used in military airplanes, which became widely adopted in the Second World War. In the 1950's a Neurologist in California published a study after seeing the high number of head injuries from automobile accidents coming into his practice. The study proposed the retractable seat belt as a safety measure, along with other recommendations such as roll-cages, door locks, and air-bags. Thankfully, the automotive industry embraced and adopted most of his findings, most important of which was likely the seat-belt. 

10) GPS - Perhaps the biggest benefactors of navigation systems have been men, who now have an amazing excuse to not have to ask for directions. GPS (global positioning system) technology dates back to 1973, and was developed by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). It became fully operational in 1995, and was adopted that same year in the Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight, although it wasn't very accurate. By the mid 2000's, most of the kinks had been worked out and navigation systems were offered by most manufacturers, eliminating any excuse people could make to get out of job interviews, family functions, or blind dates. 

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