Of the 10,000 or so cars that were on the road by the start of the 20th century, three-quarters were electric or had external combustion steam engines, but the versatile and efficient gas-burning internal combustion power plant was destined for dominance. Partnered with ever-improving transmissions, tires, brakes, lights, and other such essentials of vehicular travel, it redefined the meaning of mobility, an urge as old as the human species.
The United States alone—where 25 million horses supplied most local transportation in 1900—had about the same number of cars just three decades later. The country also had giant industries to manufacture them and keep them running and a vast network of hard-surfaced roads, tunnels, and bridges to support their conquest of time and distance. By century's end, the average American adult would travel more than 10,000 miles a year by car.
Other countries did much of the technological pioneering of automobiles. A French military engineer, Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, lit the fuse in 1771 by assembling a three-wheeled, steam-powered tractor to haul artillery. Although hopelessly slow, his creation managed to run into a stone wall during field trials—history's first auto accident. About a century later, a German traveling salesman named Nicholaus Otto constructed the first practical internal combustion engine; it used a four stroke cycle of a piston to draw a fuel-air mixture into a cylinder, compress it, mechanically capture energy after ignition, and expel the exhaust before beginning the cycle anew. Shortly thereafter, two other German engineers, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, improved the design and attached their motors to various vehicles.
These ideas leaped the Atlantic in the early 1890s, and within a decade all manner of primitive cars—open topped, bone-jarring contraptions often steered by tillers—were chugging along the streets and byways of the land. They were so alarming to livestock that Vermont passed a state law requiring a person to walk in front of a car carrying a red warning flag, and some rural counties banned them altogether. But even cautious farmers couldn't resist their appeal, memorably expressed by a future titan named Henry Ford: "Everybody wants to be somewhere he ain't. As soon as he gets there he wants to go right back."
Behind Ford's homespun ways lay mechanical gifts of a rare order. He grew up on a farm in Dearborn, Michigan, and worked the land himself for a number of years before moving to Detroit, where he was employed as a machinist and then as chief engineer of an electric light company. All the while he tinkered with cars, displaying such obvious talents that he readily found backers when he formed the Ford Motor Company in 1903 at the age of 40.
The business prospered from the start, and after the introduction of the Model T in 1908, it left all rivals in the dust. The Tin Lizzie, as the Model T was affectionately called, reflected Ford's rural roots. Standing seven feet high, with a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine that produced a top speed of 45 miles per hour, it was unpretentious, reliable, and remarkably sturdy. Most important from a marketing point of view, it was cheap—an affordable $850 that first year—and became astonishingly cheaper as the years passed, eventually dropping to the almost irresistible level of $290. "Every time I lower the price a dollar, we gain a thousand new buyers," boasted Ford. As for the cost of upkeep, the Tin Lizzie was a marvel. A replacement muffler cost 25 cents, a new fender $2.50.
What made such bargain prices possible was mass production, a competitive weapon that Henry Ford honed with obsessive genius. Its basis, the use of standardized, precision-made parts, had spun fortunes for a number of earlier American industrialists—armaments maker Samuel Colt and harvester king Cyrus McCormick among them. But that was only the starting point for Ford and his engineers. In search of efficiencies they created superb machine tools, among them a device that could simultaneously drill 45 holes in an engine block. They mechanized steps that were done by hand in other factories, such as the painting of wheels. Ford's painting machine could handle 2,000 wheels an hour. In 1913, with little fanfare, they tried out another tactic for boosting productivity: the moving assembly line, a concept borrowed from the meat-packing industry.