Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, the man credited with building the first known working, self-propelled mechanical vehicle capable of carrying a driver, was born on this day in 1725. At the age of 40, Cugnot, a French military engineer and inventor, began to develop a steam powered vehicle capable of transporting cannons for the French Army. This led to the 1769 debut of a scaled-down version of a “fardier a vapeur,” translated to steam dray. A fardier is a massive two wheeled, horse drawn cart used to transport heavy equipment, but Cugnot’s version utilized a third wheel where the horses would normally be.
In 1770 he built a full size version designed to carry 4 tons and cover 4.8 miles in an hour. That speed remained out of reach in practice. According to some sources the four-passenger vehicle moved at approximately 2.25 miles per hour.
In 1771 Cugnot was supposedly driving a second example he built when it went out of control and knocked over part of a Paris garden or arsenal wall, marking the first automobile accident. While the first known written accounts of the accident came more than 30 years after it was said to have occurred, it’s documented that Cugnot was arrested and convicted of dangerous driving, another first, if the tale is true. Regardless, the project would be abandoned around the same time, as it continued to fall short of expectations. However, in 1772 King Louis XV granted Cugnot a pension of 600 livres a year for his innovative work. The vehicle remained in an arsenal until being moved to the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris in 1800. Today, visitors can still lay eyes on that vehicle. Cugnot died in Paris in 1804.
Cover photo: rendering of the first automobile accident