Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir, Belgian engineer and inventor of the first commercially successful internal combustion engine, was born on this day in 1822. There had been internal combustion engines patented as early as 1807, but Lenoir’s 1858 version demonstrated the feasibility of such a power plant. Prior to building what became the Lenoir engine, he worked extensively in electrical experimentation.
Using his knowledge of electricity, Lenoir refined the internal combustion engine, using a jumping spark ignition system. The sparks ignited a mixture coal gas and oxygen inside a one cylinder steam engine converted to burn gaseous fuel. The design received a patent in 1860 and three years later the engine made its automotive debut.
In 1863, Lenoir unveiled the Hippomobile, powered by his one one cylinder engine. The primitive, mechanical vehicle traveled from Paris to Joinville-le-Pont in a test drive, covering eleven miles in ~three hours. It was a demonstration that helped boost the popularity of the engine. By 1865 some 143 had been sold in Paris and production of the engine in London had begun.
While most applications of the engine were stationary, such as printing presses and water pumps, many motorized buggies and boats. Lenoir himself focused on motorboats starting in the early 1860s, but his efforts to move carriages under their own power earned him lifelong validation. On July 16, 1900, about a month before he passed away, he received a plaque from the Automobile Club of France. It read, “In recognition of his great merits as an inventor of the gas engine and builder of the first car in the world.” However, it was not necessarily the first car.