History of The Internal Combustion Engine and Early Gas-Powered Cars

History of the Internal Combustion Engine - The Heart of the Automobile

An internal combustion engine is an engine that uses the explosive combustion of fuel to push a piston within a cylinder - the piston's movement turns a crankshaft that then turns the car wheels via a chain or a drive shaft. The different types of fuel commonly used for car combustion engines are gasoline (or petrol), diesel, and kerosene.

A brief outline of the history of the internal combustion engine includes the following highlights

  • 1680 - Dutch physicist, Christian Huygens designed an internal combustion engine that was to be fueled with gunpowder.

  • 1807 - Francois Isaac de Rivaz of Switzerland invented an internal combustion engine that used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen for fuel. Rivaz designed a car for his engine - the first internal combustion powered an automobile. However, he was a very unsuccessful design.

  • 1824 - English engineer, Samuel Brown adapted an old Newcomen steam engine to burn gas, and he used it to briefly power a vehicle up Shooter's Hill in London.

  • 1858 - Belgian-born engineer, Jean Joseph√Čtienne Lenoir invented and patented (1860) a double-acting, electric spark-ignition internal combustion engine fueled by coal gas. In 1863, Lenoir attached an improved engine (using petroleum and a primitive carburetor) to a three-wheeled wagon that managed to complete a historic fifty-mile road trip. (See image at top)

  • 1862 - Alphonse Beau de Rochas, a French civil engineer, patented but did not build a four-stroke engine (French patent #52,593, January 16, 1862).

  • 1864 - Austrian engineer, Siegfried Marcus*, built a one-cylinder engine with a crude carburetor and attached his engine to a cart for a rocky 500-foot drive. Several years later, Marcus designed a vehicle that briefly ran at 10 mph that a few historians have considered as the forerunner of the modern automobile by being the world's first gasoline-powered vehicle (however, read conflicting notes below).

  • 1873 - George Brayton, an American engineer, developed an unsuccessful two-stroke kerosene engine (it used two external pumping cylinders). However, it was considered the first safe and practical oil engine.

  • 1866 - German engineers, Eugen Langen, and Nikolaus August Otto improved on Lenoir's and de Rochas' designs and invented a more efficient gas engine.

  • 1876 - Nikolaus August Otto invented and later patented a successful four-stroke engine, known as the "Otto cycle".


  • 1876 - The first successful two-stroke engine was invented by Sir Dougald Clerk.

  • 1883 - French engineer, Edouard Delamare-Debouteville, built a single-cylinder four-stroke engine that ran on stove gas. It is not certain if he did indeed build a car, however, Delamare-Debouteville's designs were very advanced for the time - ahead of both Daimler and Benz in some ways at least on paper.

  • 1885 - Gottlieb Daimler invented what is often recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine - with a vertical cylinder, and with gasoline injected through a carburetor (patented in 1887). Daimler first built a two-wheeled vehicle the "Reitwagen" (Riding Carriage) with this engine and a year later built the world's first four-wheeled motor vehicle.

  • 1886 - On January 29, Karl Benz received the first patent (DRP No. 37435) for a gas-fueled car.

  • 1889 - Daimler built an improved four-stroke engine with mushroom-shaped valves and two V-slant cylinders.

  • 1890 - Wilhelm Maybach built the first four-cylinder, four-stroke engine.

  • Further Reading - The Mechanics of Internal Combustion Engines - What is a 2-stroke? 4-stroke?
Engine design and car design were integral activities, almost all of the engine designers mentioned above also designed cars, and a few went on to become major manufacturers of automobiles. All of these inventors and more made notable improvements in the evolution of the internal combustion vehicles.


The Importance of Nicolaus Otto


One of the most important landmarks in engine design comes from Nicolaus Otto who in 1876 invented an effective gas motor engine—the first practical alternative to the steam engine. Otto built the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine called the "Otto Cycle Engine," and when he completed his engine, he built it into a motorcycle.

In May 1876, Nicolaus Otto built the first practical four-stroke piston cycle internal combustion engine. He continued to develop his four-stroke engine after 1876 and he considered his work finished after his invention of the first magneto ignition system for low voltage ignition in 1884. Otto's patent was overturned in 1886 in favor of the patent granted to Alphonse Beau de Roaches for his four-stroke engine. However, Otto built a working engine while Roaches' design stayed on paper. On October 23, 1877, another patent for a gas motor engine was issued to Nicolaus Otto, and Francis and William Crossley.
In all, Otto built the following engines:
  • 1861 A copy of Lenoir's atmospheric engine
  • 1862 A four-cycle compressed charge engine (prior to Rochas's patent) which failed as it broke almost immediately
  • 1864 The first successful atmospheric engine
  • 1876 The four-stroke compressed charge engine which is acknowledged as the "Otto" cycle engine. The term Otto cycle is applied to all compressed charge, four cycle engines.


    The Importance of Karl Benz


    In 1885, a German mechanical engineer named Karl Benz designed and built the world's first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine. A year later, Benz received the first patent (DRP No. 37435) for a gas-fueled car on January 29, 1886. It was a three-wheeler called the Motorwagen or Benz Patent Motorcar.

    Benz built his first four-wheeled car in 1891. He started Benz & Company and by 1900 became the world's largest manufacturer of automobiles. He also became the first legally licensed driver in the world, when the Grand Duke of Baden granted him the distinction. What's especially remarkable was that he was able to achieve these milestones despite coming from a relatively modest background.

    The Importance of Gottlieb Daimler

    In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler (together with his design partner Wilhelm Maybach) took Otto's internal combustion engine a step further and patented what is generally recognized as the prototype of the modern gas engine. Daimler's connection to Otto was a direct one; Daimler worked as technical director of Deutz Gasmotorenfabrik, which Nikolaus Otto co-owned in 1872. There is some controversy as to who built the first motorcycle, Otto or Daimler.
    The 1885 Daimler-Maybach engine was small, lightweight, fast, used a gasoline-injected carburetor, and had a vertical cylinder. The size, speed, and efficiency of the engine allowed for a revolution in car design. On March 8, 1886, Daimler took a stagecoach and adapted it to hold his engine, thereby designing the world's first four-wheeled automobileDaimler is considered the first inventor to have invented a practical internal-combustion engine.
    In 1889, Daimler invented a V-slanted two cylinder, four-stroke engine with mushroom-shaped valves. Just like Otto's 1876 engine, Daimler's new engine set the basis for all car engines going forward. Also in 1889, Daimler and Maybach built their first automobile from the ground up, they did not adopt another purpose vehicle as they had always been done previously. The new Daimler automobile had a four-speed transmission and obtained speeds of 10 mph.
    Daimler founded the Daimler Motoren-Gesellschaft in 1890 to manufacture his designs. Eleven years later, Wilhelm Maybach designed the Mercedes automobile.