The first self-propelled, land based vehicle is credited to French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who was born on this day in 1725. Cugnot was a captain in the French army who relied on two wheeled horse drawn fardiers to carry heavy equipment such as artillery and arms across long distances. He developed a way to turn the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into rotary motion by means of a ratchet system. Using this design he built a less than full scale “fardier à vapeur,” steam powered fardier, in 1769, which had three wheels. The third wheel was placed where horses normally would be secured to the wagon. The next year he built a full size version that was specified to be able to carry four tons and travel approximately 3.9 kmh (2.4 mph). It was designed to carry up to four passengers as well as its cargo. In 1771 a second full scale fardier is said to have ran into a wall after its driver lost control, thus resulting in the first recorded automobile accident.
Cugnot’s 1770 fardier à vapeur, as preserved at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.