by J. F. MacPherson

At school I was taught that Gottlieb Daimler was the father of modern motoring, but for me that begged a question. The term 'modern' infers a before. What came before? How did we shift from equine to mechanical horsepower? My teacher moved rapidly on to other, more curricular matters and I was left curious.

Herr Daimler can definitely stake  a claim to revolutionising the petrol internal combustion engine. In 1884 he patented an engine powered by the rapid combustion of carburetted air in a cylinder (based on Dr Otto's work into a four-cycle engine). The story, however, is far older and infinitely more intriguing.

If we focus on engineers who envisaged commercial, widespread applications for their designs, rather than those who sought only to create for their own interest or to solve a local need, it could be claimed that the founding fathers of the horseless carriage in Britain are David Ramsay and Thomas Wildgoose.


On January 17th, 1619, Ramsay and Wildgoose were awarded Patent Number 6 in England for engines or instruments to plough ground without horses or oxen, which was also described as capable of enabling passenger or cargo boats to move without wind. Despite the granting of the patent, nothing detailed appears to have been recorded about this ground-breaking invention.

Over on the Continent, inventors were being rather more forthcoming about the motive power of their horseless vehicles. In January 1645, a French commentator waxed lyrical about the creation of the English son of a Frenchman who planned to construct coaches that would be capable of making a return journey from Paris to Fontainebleau (roughly 140km, depending on the route) and back in a single day.


This early French revolution was spring driven. A trial run was made in Paris, where it was discovered that the cost of the two burly men required to wind up the springs far outweighed the promised savings in hay and oats for a horse-drawn equivalent.

With the development of ever more precise clock design and production in the late seventeenth century, it was almost inevitable that innovators of horseless road transport would turn to clockwork to solve their motive issues.

Perhaps the most notable exponent of this was Hans Hautsch (1595-1670), who built several spring-powered carriages, reputedly selling one to Prince Charles-Gustav of Sweden and another to the King of Denmark. The latter was reputedly a two-child-power unit, the children employed to operate the cranks being concealed within the vehicle's body.

From the late seventeeth century onwards there were many who believed that the most obvious means of powering road vehicles was wind. It hasm, of course, all of the benefits of being free, readily available, and is a widely-understood technology.

in 1714, Du Quet (France) designed a carriage fitted with a small windmill which powered racks geared to the wheel hubs on pivoting stub axles. Another utilised sails to energise two legs that walked the vehicle along.

During this heyday of sails, in Britain  in 1826, George Pocock and his partner Colonel Viney designed and built  a char-volant. This lightweight carriage was propelled very rapidly by a string of tandem-harnessed kites. Pocock and Viney even made a journey from Bristol to London in the carriage. The downside of wind, however, is its unpredictability, even in blustery old Blighty. To compensate for this, Pocock apparently planned to include a dandy-cart at the back where a pony could be conveniently stashed for those annoying times when the wind failed them...

Broken down carriage wheel
Gottlieb Daimler petrol engine.jpg
Gottlieb Daimler. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections
Burstall and Hall steam coach 1824
Burstall & Hill Steam Coach. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Soon shall thy arm, unconquered steam! afar drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car

Erasmus Darwin, 1791

If the Bible is true, the time is coming when men shall travel at fifty miles an hour.

Sir Isaac Newton

In 1680, Sir Isaac Newtown had described a wheeled device that was propelled  by a jet of steam from a small boiler. This apparatus may well have been inspired by Hero of Alexandria's first century AD aeolipile, which is credited by many as being the world's first steam turbine.

Wind may be free, but combustion is more predictable - if the technology and materials can be devised to support it, and this is where far more effort has been expended to relieve horses and oxen of the burden of dragging us humans our merchandise around. Steam, then, was where the innovators of road transport turned their collective attention, making their greatest - and possibly craziest - leaps forward.

Nicholas-joseph Cugnot, a French military engineer was fascinated by the potential of steam, reportedly building his first model unit in 1763. He was commissioned by the French army to build a full-scale prototype of his steam-driven artillery tractor, completed in 1770.

Running on three wheels, Cugnot's fardier à vapeur  weighed in at about 2.5tonnes empty and had to stop every fifteen minutes or so to top up the water and re-stoke the fire. Intended to be able to keep up with the pace of the French Army. the steam dray was not quite the revolutionary development Cugnot envisaged. He probably did gain the full attention of his army paymasters, though, when his dray crashed into the wall of the local Arsenal.

In Britain, William Murdock was working for Boulton & Watt as a steam engine erector and, in 1784, he built Britain's first working model of a steam-powered road locomotive. Like Cugnot's this was a three-wheeler, but was an infinitely more effective design. Although Murdock was convinced that 'much money' could be made from the concept, Watts was probably far from happy at the possibility of losing such a capable engineer and worked hard to dissuade Murdock from taking the project any further. It has been suggested that Murdoch carried on developing his ideas and that he went on to produce a full-scale steam locomotive, but no firm evidence of it has survived.

By 1801, Watt's own patent had expired, setting the scene for the larger-than-life Ricahrd 'Captain Dick' Trevithick and his first high pressure steam road locomotive, nicknamed the 'Puffing Devil'. Its test drive took place on a rainy Christmas Eve in Cornwall in 1801, the 'Puffer' successfully negotiating the road and hill at a pace faster than a man could walk. This first machine caught fire a few days later and was destroyed. Although Trevithick built another, which made several equally successful runs in London, he failed to raise the capial to take the idea further. Soon his ever shifting attention was transferred  from road to to the more immediately lucrative rail.

The mantle of locomotion pioneers was to change hands many times in subsequent years. One of the most memorable must be William Brunton's remarkable 'Mechanical Traveller'*. Brunton had discarded the idea of using a steam boiler to power the wheels and taken a lateral look at the problem. Using four small wheels to support the boiler, motive power was supplied by two articulated legs that walk behind the carriage, pushing it along.

The concept of walking legs was reprised several times by various engineers, notably David Gordon, who patented a system which used jointed legs that mimicked the action of those of a horse.

The 1820's and 30's saw a rash of patents and new designs, including Burstall and Hill's for a steam coach that looked very much like a traditional horse-drawn carriage, but ran substantially slower (3-4mph). A combination of its weight and the poor roads at the time led to the coach (and, probably, any occupants) being shaken to pieces.


As the nineteenth century progressed, increasingly practical steam-powered road vehicles bega to be trialled. Some were more practical and commercial than others, but all too often they were curbed by legislation that sought to tax, limit or even forbid their use. During 1832 alone no fewer than 54 Parliamentary Bills were introduced to make steam vehicles subject to special taxation.

There are so many other pioneers, too many to mention in any detail - Hancock, Nasmyth, Dance, Heaton, Macerone and Church, to name but a few. Some were practical, some less so, but all were visionaries who foresaw a future where road vehicles could expand human horizons.

Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot steam dray
Cugnot's Steam Dray. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections
David Gordon Patent walking steam coach 1830
David Gordon Steam Coach. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections
*To see a working model of Brunton's Traveller, try this recreation on You Tube

Only a few years ago many scientific papers appeard in the public journals of England, and indeed of Europe, demonstrating, with mathematical precision, that it was "impossible" for a Steam Carriage to propel itself along "a horizontal line, on a common road". These mistaken views, backed by a "mathematical" (pretended) authority, have had considerable effect on the public mind; for many more persons have read such assertions, than have had an opportunity of witnessing the demonstration of their fallacy.

'A Few Facts Concerning Elementary Locomotion', Francis Macerone, 1834

J. F. MacPherson

My sincere thanks to the British Library for their invaluable help in tracking down the text of Ramsay and Wildgoose's original patent.

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