On the day in engineering history, Karl Benz received the first patent for a
gasoline-powered automobile. On January 29, 1886, the German mechanical
engineer received patent DRP 37435 for a "vehicle with gas operation". Karl Benz's
three-wheeled vehicle resembled an oversized tricycle or baby carriage, but
featured a four-stroke 0.9-PS engine. PS, an abbreviation for the German word Pferdestärke (horse strength), is often confused with
horsepower (hp), but is mathematically different from the British unit. According
to Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), a German metrology institute, 1 PS = 0.9863201652997627
hp – or roughly 98.6% of mechanical horsepower.
Benz's 0.9-PS engine was located at the rear of his vehicle, behind a
bench-style seat which provided enough room for a driver and passenger. Known
as the Motorwagen, the three-wheeled
"horseless carriage" had two large wheels in the back and a smaller wheel in
the front. All three wheels were made of metal and featured interwoven spokes.
Instead of a steering wheel, however, Benz's tri-car (as it is sometimes know)
sported a shaft which attached to the front wheel and could be used to direct
the vehicle. This primitive form of rack-and-pinion steering included a small
gear which meshed with a toothed bar or rack. Other "modern" Motorwagen
features included an electric ignition system, a carburetor, a water cooling
system, and rear springs.
Although most automotive historians recognize Karl Benz as
the holder of the first patent for a gasoline-powered vehicle, car buffs
continue to debate whether he really invented the first modern automobile.
George Auer, a Benz biographer who profiled the German mechanical engineer for the
European Automotive Hall of Fame, asserts that "DRP 37435 today is recognized
as the official birth certificate of the motor car." Benz's detractors,
however, claim that the Motorwagen of the 1880s was not a truly modern vehicle because of
its three-wheel design. They also note that Karl Benz did not "invent" the
automobile - if the term "automobile" refers to a self-propelled vehicle. That
honor may belong to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French military engineer who designed
a steam-powered tractor that could pull artillery.