Every time you shut the front door and approach your car, you’re looking at millennia of progress condensed into a steel, rubber and alloy package. Today we’re looking at the technological leaps that made your daily motoring possible and that gave you somewhere to hang your precious private number plate!
It seems obvious enough, but the taming of fire by early hominids was a massive evolutionary leap. It allowed more to survive harsh winters, allowed them to cook and preserve meats, and ward of predators. Some thinkers, such as Richard Wrangham, suggest that the ability to cook meat led to the human brain increasing in volume, bringing about a wealth of cognitive opportunities.
It also, more importantly for us, allowed humans to work and build with materials in complex ways – essential for the car.
The first evidence of the use of fire is thought to be the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, dating from almost two million years ago.
Believe it or not, the first wheels weren’t used for transport – they were used for shaping clay as potter’s wheels. A few hundred years later, around 3200 CE, the ancient Sumerians started to use them to build chariots, and the rest of the ancient world followed. Some of the first wheels were made of solid circles of wood, then developed over time to use a rim and spokes for more speed and maneuverability.
The first car tyres were made much the same way – it wasn’t until the very early twentieth century that cars began to hit the roads with rubber tyres over an alloy wheelbase.
Just go trying to build a car without metal – you’re not going to get very far! Metals, extracted from the earth are absolutely essential to building a working car.
Early humans first began mining about 43,000 years ago, where a Swaziland cave showed evidence of ochre mining, for paints and pigments.
Sites such as Grime’s Graves in Norfolks show Bronze and Iron Age Britons mining for flint – essential in making tools.
By the Roman period, iron, tin, silver and copper were being mined across the empire for use in building and forging weapons. Early methods of industrial-scale mining were dangerous and toxic – luckily things are a lot safer now.
So you’ve managed to get your metal out of the ground – what are you going to do with it? Metal is useless without a process to make it shapeable and suitable for different contexts.
Metallurgy, developed around 7,000 years ago in central and eastern Europe, gave humans the ability to refine, mix and develop metals in ways that allowed wide-scale production of tools and weapons.
For our purposes, metallurgy allowed the production of steel and aluminium, that are both integral to the construction of cars.
Paper (and language)
Coming up with the knowledge to design or invent some sort of powered wheeled contraption is great, but how are you going to share that knowledge without some way of passing it on – especially over large distances?
Written language (rather than spoken) seems to date from about 3000 BCE in Sumeria. The first texts were written on pieces of clay, marked by a cut reed. This is lucky for us, as many of their texts have managed to survive to the present day. However, lugging clay tablets around could be hard work, and was hardly the ideal information-carrying system.
Paper was developed around 105CE in China by pounding sodden mulberry leaves and rags in a frame and allowing it to dry. This light-weight, easily manufactured material allowed for information to be written down and carried great distances without all that much of a burden. Soon, information was being exchanged in a way unimaginable previously, leading to a number of technological revolutions in China and beyond.
And it goes without saying that if writing hadn’t been invented our car number plates would all be blank.
Paper was a great step forward in terms of sharing information, but copying out texts was a laborious process – and you had to be literate to do it. The Chinese worked out how to engrave printing blocks to speed things up around 200 CE, but this in itself was time-consuming. Every text required a new series of blocks to be cut.
The invention of movable type in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg was a quantum leap for information-transfer. His printing press allowed texts to be printed in record time, greatly increasing the flow of information and putting great minds in touch with one another.
Some of these great minds would be essential in the development of the automobile…
Gears are essential to the automobile – without them, they wouldn’t be able to shift speeds effectively, or accelerate in any meaningful sense.
The (very) early Chinese were using a primitive gear in their chariots around 2700 BCE and the Greek, Aristotle, records gears being used in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, making gears became much more economically viable and less labour intensive, leading to an explosion in the complexity of machinery. Soon, bicycles and other vehicles began to flood onto road across Europe.
James Watt developed the first powered steam engine in 1781 CE that was capable of being used in a manufacturing environment. The resulting Industrial Revolution grew cities, introduced consumer items and made possible the kind of factory that could build a functioning car on a consumer scale.
It also led to the expansion of towns and cities to the extent that powered vehicles became a necessity.
While the inhabitants of South America were using natural rubber to make balls for sport as early as 1500 BCE, the first industrial use of rubber came in the 18th century, when it began to be applied to wheels, and used to create tubing and seals.
Up until World War Two, natural rubber from trees was used to manufacture tyres and parts for cars, but shortages required synthetic alternatives to be developed. These assisted greatly in the manufacturing boom that occured in the 1950s.
Last, but by no means least, you need an engine to power a car. There had been attempts at a combustion engine capable of powering a car throughout the late nineteenth century, but it took Gottlieb Daimler developing his ‘grandfather clock’ engine in 1885 to make it economically and structurally viable. He attached his first prototype engine to a bike frame and whizzed alongside the Neckar River near his workshop at a screeching 12 mph – needless to say we’ve come a long, long way since then.