The creation of 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 long relied on two wheeled horse drawn fardiers to carry heavy equipment such as artillery and arms across great distances. As the horses tired, his pace slowed and eventually stopped. He desired to create a vehicle that would move along steadily, uninterrupted by fatigue.
This led him to develop a mechanism that turned the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into rotary motion by means of a ratchet system. Using this design he built a small scale “fardier à vapeur,” a steam powered fardier, in 1769, which had three wheels. The third wheel, placed where the horses normally would have been, supported the steam boiler and drive parts. The next year he built a full size version that was designed to carry four tons of cargo, four passengers and travel at approximately 3.9 kmh (2.4 mph). A fully loaded test run proved successful, with the vehicle covering 4.8 miles in just one hour.
However, initial success was not long lived. Instability issues and and underperforming boiler system made the vehicle much slower and troublesome than first thought. In an attempt to improve on the first design, a second full scale fardier was built in 1771. Unfortunately it iis said to have ran into a wall after its driver lost control, thus resulting in the first recorded automobile accident.
By 1772, after a series of trials, the project was abandoned by the French Army. Although it did not prove to be a viable option for the army, King Louis XV granted Cugnot a pension of 600 livres a year for his innovative work. The King even ordered that the vehicle should be kept at the arsenal. In 1800 the fardier was transferred to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, where it can still be seen on display to this day. In 2010 a replica was built, and it worked perfectly, essentially proving the feasibility of the machine.