About Cugnot’s Steam Tractor

In 1769 Captain Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, a French army officer who was born in 1725, designed a steam car that was the inspiration for most every automobile made after it. French Minister of War, Etienne-Francois, was part of the reason why this vehicle was produced. This vehicle was often referred to as the “Steamer.”

The Goal

Cugnot and an assistant, Brezin, an army mechanic, built the first steam car around a basic wooden frame at the Paris Arsenal. Both Cugnot and Brezin were attempting to convert a steam engine’s lateral motion into rotational energy needed for locomotion, or the ability to move from one place to another. The vehicle was made as a wartime vehicle to help transport artillery, as a way to do it without horses. It also had exceptional towing capability–up to five tons!

The Steamer’s Abilities

The vehicle could operate for fifteen minutes before reheating was necessary. The steam tractor could run at nearly 2 ½ miles per hour, but nonetheless it was a great invention with being able to fit up to four people inside, close to what many modern-day passenger cars can transport.

To get the steam tractor to move, Cugnot and Brezin put the engine and boiler overtop just ahead of the front wheel. They did this to push discs that were on both sides of the front wheel. The Steamer had three wheels total.

Issues With the Steamer

Although Cugnot and Brezin got the vehicle to run, they ran into two huge problems, and one minor one. The extremely major being getting it to stop: the vehicle was involved in an accident into a stone wall. That was serious, and because of that Cugnot was the first known person to get into a motor vehicle accident, and served jail time for the incident. Cugnot’s vehicle also tipped over in the front when not hauling war equipment because of the steam chamber’s heavy weight. The minor problem was that it was difficult to turn. Development of the vehicle did not happen past 1771 because of the problems it presented.

The Steamer Lives On

Cugnot passed away in 1804, but nowadays, if you ever go to Paris, you can visit the Musee des Arts et Metiers where a prototype of the vehicle lives today as an exhibit of the museum’s collection. Many other museums have created small replica versions of the vehicle for display, and the Museum of Transport and Communication in Budapest produced an image of the Steamer. The invention of automobiles has really been a process, and Cugnot was one person who seriously contributed to how the modern-day car has come to be.

Other Steam-Powered Road Vehicles & Their Inventors

● Frenchman and mechanical engineer Onesiphore Pecqueur invented the differential gear and improved on Cugnot’s Steamer by inventing a crossover-type vehicle

● Up until 1850, Charles Deitz built steam-driven road tractors that pulled passenger carriages in the cities of Bordeaux and Paris in France

● A working steam car, built by professor of physics at Wisconsin State University Dr. J.W. Carhart in 1871, won a 200-mile race

The friendly folks at a local car dealer, Adel Chrysler Dodge Ram Jeep in Adel, IA would be happy to provide you with more information on vehicle history, or provide you with service for your current vehicle!


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