Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot and the Automobile

Nicholas Cugnot's vehicle

Nicholas Cugnot’s vehicle

On September 25, 1725, French inventor Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot was born. He is known to have built the first working self-propelled mechanical vehicle, the world’s first automobile.

Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot was born in Void-Vacon, Lorraine in 1725 and was trained as a military engineer. Cugnot experimented with working models of steam-engine-powered vehicles for the French Army starting in 1765. He was one of the first engineers to successfully employ a device for converting the reciprocating motion of a steam piston into rotary motion by means of a ratchet arrangement and a smaller version of gus three-wheeled fardier à vapeur already ran in 1769.

A full size version of the fardier à vapeur was built around 1770 and it was supposed to carry 4 tons in an hour, however, it is believed that this performance was never really achieved. The vehicle itself weighed approximately 2.5 tons and had to wheers at the reas and one in front, which supported the steam boiler and driving mechanism. It is not completely clear how many people could be seated on the vehicle but it is widely assumed that four people could use it traveling at a speed of about 3.6 km/h.

However, the vehicle was reported to have been very unstable due to poor weight distribution. Therefore, a second vehicle was constructed, which is said to have gone out of control and knocked down part of the Arsenal wall. This incident became known as (possibly) the first automobile accident. However, the sources on the date of the incident differ. Also, a big weakness of the vehicle was its boiler performance, since the fire needed to be relit and the steam raised again every quarter of an hour or so, considerably reducing overall speed.

After several trials, the project was abandoned by the French Army and Cugnot was granted a good pension for his achievements and innovative work. In 2010, a copy of the “fardier de Cugnot” was built by some of the pupils of the Arts et Métiers ParisTech, a French Grande école, and the city of Void-Vacon. The replica worked and proved the overall concept to be viable. It was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show and it currently visible at the native village of Cugnot, at Void-Vacon.

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