The automobile, invented in the late nineteenth century, became a major force for change as the twentieth century progressed. It was the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented society, and its demands drove changes in industrial production as well. Its fuel demands created the petroleum industry and provided jobs in a wide range of related industries and services, from steel to rubber. Its use of mass production techniques revolutionized industrial manufacturing.
Automobiles allow people to travel long distances with ease and comfort. They provide opportunities for recreation, and they also facilitate communication with family members and friends who live far away. They also act as a symbol of status and independence. The personal freedom that the automobile brought about changed life in America. For many people, modern life is unthinkable or at least inconvenient without a car.
In the 1860s, Siegfried Marcus of Austria constructed a crude handcart with a two-stroke internal combustion engine that ran on gasoline. This was the first modern motorcar, a true automobile, and it demonstrated that gasoline could be used as fuel for an engine powered by human power. In the late nineteenth century, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz built the world’s first modern cars. Their 1901 Mercedes was a high-tech car, weighing only fourteen pounds per horsepower and capable of reaching fifty-three miles an hour.
American manufacturers soon realized that the huge market for automobiles meant a big seller’s market, and they began to increase production. They developed standardization in design and engineering. By the 1920s, basic systems—seats, steering, brakes and engines—became very similar, although a number of features distinguished one model from another.
Some of the differences between models were a matter of design style and appearance, and some reflected the economics of manufacturing. Profits from high unit sales influenced automotive design, and engineers sometimes sacrificed functional features for the sake of aesthetics and technology.
Nevertheless, the automobile has been a powerful force for social and economic change in America, and it has contributed to global developments as well.
The modern automobile is a complex system with thousands of components, each designed to perform a specific function. The most important of these are the engine and its transmission, the drive train, and the suspension system. The latter enables the automobile to handle the shocks and variations in road surface that would otherwise cause the wheels to lose contact with the roadway and allow the car to become unstable. The suspension system also ensures that the front wheels are not pushed into dips or raised onto curbs. In addition, the suspension system is designed to help stabilize the vehicle during a turn, which improves handling and safety.