The first-ever vehicle to be powered by an engine was the three-wheeled steam cart, weighing in at 4000 kg, which Frenchman Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot presented in 1769. The subsequent period saw further steam-powered vehicles being built, which in some cases even went into series production. The disadvantages of such vehicle powered by steam engines include the very high weight of the drive system and the need to put the vehicle into operation sometime before departure.
Further discovery is internal combustion technology where explosive combustion of fuel is used to push a piston within a cylinder – the piston’s movement turns a crankshaft that then turns the cart wheels via a chain or shaft drive.
François Isaac de Rivaz, inventor and a politician. Invented a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine with electric ignition and described it in a French patent published in 1807. In 1808 he fitted it into a primitive working vehicle – “the world’s first internal combustion powered automobile”.
The de Rivaz engine was a pioneering reciprocating engine designed and developed from 1804 starting with a stationary engine suitable to work a pump, de Rivaz progressed to a small experimental vehicle built in 1807, which was the first wheeled vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. In subsequent years de Rivaz developed his design, and in 1813 build a larger 6-meter long vehicle, weighing almost a ton.
Towards the end of the 18th century Issac de Rivaz design several successful steam powered carriages, His army experience with cannon had led him to think about using an explosive charge to drive a piston instead of steam. In 1804 he began to experiment with explosions created inside a cylinder with a piston. His first design were for a stationary engine to power a pump. The engine was powered by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gas ignited to create an explosion within the cylinder and drive the piston out.
The gas mixture was ignited by an electric spark in the same manner as a modern internal combustion engine. In 1806 he moved on to apply the design to what became the world’s first internal combustion engine driven automobile.
In 1807 de Rivaz places his experiment prototype engine in a carriage and used it to propel the vehicle a short distance. This was the first vehicle to be powered by an internal combustion engine. On 30th January 1807 Issac de Rivaz was granted a patent No. 731 in Paris.
Now coincidentally, in 1807 Nicéphore Niépce installed his coal dust and resin fueled Pyréolophore internal combustion engine in a boat and powered up the river Saone in France to be granted a patent by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The discrete, virtually simultaneous, implementations of these two designs of internal combustion in different modes of transport means that the de Rivaz engine can be correctly described as “the world’s first use of an internal combustion engine in an automobile (1808), while the Pyréolophore (1807) was the world’s first use of an internal combustion engine in a boat.
The de Rivaz engine had no timing mechanism and the introduction of the fuel mixture and ignition were all under manual control. The compressed hydrogen gas fuel was stored in a balloon connected by a pipe to the cylinder. Oxygen was supplied from the air by a separate air inlet. Manually operated valves allowed introduction of the gas and air at the correct point in the cycle. A lever worked by hand moved a secondary, opposed, piston. This evacuated the exhaust gases, sucked in a fresh mixture and closed the inlet and exhaust valves. A Volta cell was used to ignite the gas within the cylinder by pressing an external button that created an electric spark inside the cylinder.
The explosion drove the piston freely up the vertically mounted cylinder, storing the energy by lifting the heavy piston to an elevated position. The piston returned under its own weight and engaged a ratchet that connected the piston rod to a pulley. This pulley was in turn attached to a drum around which a rope was wound. The rope’s other end was attached to a second drum on the charette’s front wheels. The weight of the piston during its return down the cylinder was enough to turn the drums and move the charrette. When the return stroke was over, the ratchet allowed the top drum to disconnect from the piston rod ready for the next powered lift of the piston.
In 1813 de Rivaz built a much larger experimental vehicle he called the “grand Char mechanique”. This was 6 meter long, equipped with wheels of two meters in diameter and weighted almost a ton.
In a Swiss town Vevey the machine was loaded with 700 pounds of stone and wood, together with four men, and ran for 26 meter on a slope of about 9% at a speed of 3km/hr. with each stroke of piston, the vehicle moved ahead from four to six meters.
Although it was never commercially successful, few of his contemporaries took his work seriously. The French Academy of sciences argued that the internal combustion engine would never rival the performance of steam engine.
Subscribe to receive exclusive