The 10 Most Important Inventions in Automotive History

Here’s a look at the innovations that formed the foundation of driving as we know it today.
  • During its 130-year history, the automobile has been an amazing source of inspiration. It has spurred countless engineers and dreamers to conjure up better ideas for virtually every on-board component, from engines and transmissions to brakes, doors, windows, tires, radios, and virtually everything else.

    Picking the most important of those is, well…almost impossible. While some automotive inspirations may have changed your life, others may have saved it. And while some may have improved your behind-the-wheel experience, others may have made that experience possible in the first place.

    Here, we’ve selected 10 automotive innovations as history’s most important. A few with historical heft made the cut, while some others with lifesaving potential didn’t. We freely admit that these conclusions are up for debate, so we invite you to click through the following pages and let us know what we’ve missed, and which inventions you might have included.

  • 1. Internal Combustion Engine: Invented nearly a century before the dawn of the automobile, the gasoline engine displaced the steam engine and the electric motor in the early 1900s as the chosen means of propulsion for vehicles. Manufacturers preferred it because it lent itself to mass production and consumers liked it for its convenience. As a result, the internal combustion engine served as the heart of every vehicle when automobiles transitioned from luxury items to middle-class products.

    During that era, the demand for gasoline soared—going from three billion barrels annually in 1919 to 15 billion in 1929. The gas engine continued its dominance through the turn of the century, even when electrification began playing a role. Today, internal combustion engines remain an automotive staple, serving on more than 98% of the 70-million-plus passenger cars produced annually worldwide. The image shows a 302-cubic-inch engine for a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro. (Image source: General Motors)

  • 2. Electric Self Starter: When Cadillac added the electric self-starter to its 1912 Model 30, it marked a major change in the history of the automobile. Until the electric starter made its debut, car owners had used hand cranks to start the engine, often with disastrous results. Hand crank problems ranged from mere difficulties to broken bones to deaths.

    The emergence of the self-starter changed all that by automatically turning the engine over until it could operate under its power. In essence, it made ignition as easy as pushing a button. With the advent of the self-starter, gasoline-powered vehicles suddenly began stepping up as potential replacements for horse-drawn carriages, and sales began to soar. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Willdre)

  • 3. Pneumatic Tire: The rubber pneumatic tire has been a staple of the auto industry virtually since the beginning. A successor to the metal wheel, it was viewed as revolutionary by the public and began to climb in popularity in 1895, after it was featured in an automobile race from Paris to Bordeaux.

    Since that time, it gained treads (around 1905), found a place on the automotive conveyor line (1913), was re-designed to use synthetic rubber (1920s), was fitted with radial cords (1947), and was designed to continue running after a flat (1980). But the use of the traditional synthetic rubber tire has remained, largely due to its flexibility, shock-absorbing qualities, and toughness over tens of thousands of driving miles. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Angie from Sawara, Chiba-ken, Japan)

  • 4. Windshield: It’s hard to imagine today, but the auto industry existed for nearly a decade before the first commercial windshields appeared. Drivers of that era wore goggles over their eyes, but the goggles did little to protect the rest of the driver’s face from dust, insects, and rocks.

    In the early 1900s, windshields began to appear. Most were made from ordinary window glass. Eventually, though, automakers began using tougher glass in a frame with a rubber or neoprene seal. In the 1920s, laminated versions—capable of holding together after a fracture—made their debut. Today, windshields are required by law to remain in one piece after breaking, and window glass is considered a part of the car’s structural safety system after a rollover. Shown is a split, raked windshield of a 1952 DeSoto. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Sofar 2)

  • 5. Windshield Wipers: Windshield wipers are important today, but the need for them a century ago bordered on desperation, given the number of unpaved roads in that era. Patents for hand-operated windshield wipers go back as far as 1903, but the devices didn’t begin to appear more widely on automobiles until almost 1920.

    One of the earliest manufacturers of the technology, the Tri-Continental Corp., began producing wipers after its founder collided with a bicyclist while driving his car in 1917. His solution, called Rain Rubber, fit in a horizontal slot in the windshield and was manually operated by the driver from inside the car. Powered windshield wipers appeared soon afterward. Various versions followed over many years, including vacuum-powered, air-operated, intermittent, and rain-sensitive models. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Lothar Spurzem)

  • 6. Seat Belt: Even in the current era of heightened safety-consciousness, the seat belt is still regarded as the single most effective deterrent to traffic fatalities. By securing occupants against movement, it reduces the likelihood of death in a crash by diminishing the force of impacts with strike hazards, such as the dashboard, windshield, or steering wheel. The trend toward seat belt usage came from many directions, gaining momentum in the late 1940s and early ‘50s in response to pressure from the medical community.

    The first big concession from an automaker occurred in 1956, when Ford Motor Co. offered to pad the dashboard and install belts in its cars for a fee of $27. Seat belt laws appeared later: 1970 in Australia and 1984 in the US. To this day, it is believed that seat belts continue to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries by half. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Piercetheorganist)

  • 7. Gas Gauge: It’s easy to take the gas gauge for granted, but difficult to imagine operating a car without one. That, however, is exactly what early drivers did. To check their fuel levels, most simply slipped a yardstick into the tank. That changed in 1914, however, when Studebaker introduced the first dash-mounted fuel gauge.

    Over the years, the technology of choice became the float ball design—a float connected to a potentiometer that sends a signal to an indicator on the dashboard. Today, fuel gauges are present on virtually every one of the 70 million passenger cars built around the world every year. Shown is a fuel level indicator on a Toyota Corolla. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by By Petar Milošević)

  • 8. Automatic Transmission: Every year, the automatic transmission nudges its way up the ladder of automotive importance, as fewer and fewer new cars are offered with manual shifting. The move toward the so-called “shiftless transmission” began in 1932 at Cadillac, as a group of engineers worked to find a way to eliminate the need for drivers to use a clutch pedal. Their effort resulted in the Safety Automatic Transmission, a semi-automatic unit that debuted on the Oldsmobile Series 60 in 1939.

    A year later, the fully automatic Hydra-Matic burst onto the scene with four forward speeds (3.82:1, 2.63:1, 1.45:1, and 1.00:1), one reverse speed, and a price tag of $57. Since that time, the automatic has virtually taken over the industry. Today, according to the Los Angeles Times, fewer than 3% of cars sold in the US are manuals. The image shows an early Hydra-Matic Transmission on display at the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Michael Barera)

  • 9. Power Steering: Purists may lament the demise of the manual transmission, but few yearn for the days of manual steering. Manual steering gave way to hydraulically powered units in the 1951 Chrysler Imperial, thanks to a growing desire for a less strenuous method for drivers to turn the steering wheel. Chrysler called its solution Hydraguide. It involved the use of a hydraulic rotary vane pump driven by the engine.

    The pump pressured a hydraulic cylinder that applied force to the steering gear, making it easier for drivers to turn the wheels—especially at slow speeds. (For a great explanation of early power steering, see this 1955 US Army video.) Hydraulic units have since given way to electric assists and to hybrids (electric-hydraulic) to some degree, but power steering is standard in almost all new cars today. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by By CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz)

  • 10. Car Radio: The car radio doesn’t save lives and doesn’t make driving easier, but it has provided information and pleasure for billions of drivers around the world. Early versions in the 1930s were kludgy. They accounted for roughly a quarter of the car’s cost, weighed close to 50 lbs, and took 8 liters of space. But by 1946, the radios had shrunk and nine million car radios were in use.

    In 1963, Becker introduced a transistorized radio that used no vacuum tubes, ultimately leading to lighter weight and less power consumption. Since that time, radios evolved into audio systems that played 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, and then digital music. More recently, they integrated outside sources, such as phones. Today, drivers wouldn’t dream of buying or driving a car without a radio. Shown is a historic Philips car radio with vacuum tube. (Image source: Wikipedia/ by Frank Klemm).


Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 34 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.   


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