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When did the first 'automobile' come into being? Believe it or not, one historian suggests that the first automobile may be traced as far back as 60 A.D. to the ancient Greeks.
In his column on 'Car History' for Jalopnik.com, Jason Torchinsky reports that he investigated the earliest 'automobile' throughout history by imposing the following criteria:
It has to be motorized in some way (no clockwork or animal power); it has to be at least steerable, or controllable in some way; and, it must be able to carry at least one person.
He found that Hero designed a primitive "vehicle" that was essentially a steam engine on wheels with with a one-man platform.
Torchinsky reports: "To make a Hero engine put out enough power to be useful, I think two things would need to be done: it would need to be scaled up to a good size, and the output geared down dramatically to turn the high rotational speed into useful torque. Hero knew about gearing and gear ratios, and employed them in many of his machines. In this example, I'm gearing via belts and pulleys, to keep weight down a bit and to accommodate the somewhat awkward structure of the vehicle. The spinning sphere has power taken off from small-diameter pulleys built into the bronze shell of the sphere, near the pivot/steam entry pipes, and that power is taken by belt to a much larger diameter set of pulleys mounted on the axle. This arrangement would translate speed of rotation of the sphere to torque at the axle, much like first gear on a car.
Hero himself only really thought of it as a toy, though it is believed it was used to open automatic doors in a temple. There's some debate over just how much it could actually do, but in mideval times versions of it were used to turn cooking spits, and, really, there's no reason it couldn't have been employed to do work. Which is good, because it's the engine of my hypothetical first car.
He says something like the "Aeoliliple Automobile" might have been functioning in 60 AD. "The chassis was very simple, and based on the Greek's existing chariot-making skills of the time, just enlarged. That means no real suspension, since they didn't seem to use any on their chariots. It would likely be built out of a combination of bronze, wood, and some iron for axles and other hard-wearing elements. The bodywork is limited to a chariot-like front cowl, and a large steam-shield in the middle, separating the driver and fire-tender from the spinning, steam-spewing monster directly behind them. A hole is provided in the steam-shield to give the fire tender access to the fire, and to provide a way to feed in more fuel."
Of course, his conjecture is all theory. Torchinsky is hoping "Mythbusters" will take on the challenge and identify when the first 'automobile' actually appeared in history.