A Brief History
On August 23, 1904, Harry Weed of Canastota, New York, patented the automobile tire chain. In those days before snow tires and before Four Wheel and All Wheel Drive, tire chains undoubtedly saved many a would be stranded motorist. Here we list 10 Nifty Automotive Inventions, some of those great things that might not be of great necessity, but that make our motoring lives easier and even more fun.
1. Tire Chains, 1904.
As stated above, this invention is not only helpful, but in some circumstances an absolute necessity, especially in the mountains. Tire chains are used on cars and trucks, but can also be used on tractors, snow plows, snow blowers and ATV’s. Some states or localities prohibit chains because of possible damage to road surfaces, while in other places they require the use of chains or else you are not allowed to drive there. Snow tires, studded snow tires, and Four Wheel/All Wheel Drive has made tire chains an unusual sight on the road. The last time I remember seeing someone using tire chains on a car was a suburban Cleveland police department using chains on rear wheel drive cruisers during a blizzard. Tire chains today are often of the cable and roller variety and sometimes have easy fastening or tightening features. I have the old fashioned kind on my lawn tractor for snow plowing my drive. Tire chains can also be used for driving in mud. Honorable mention: Snow tires and studded snow tires.
2. Automotive Sound Systems, 1929.
The car radio was invented in 1929 or 1930, depending on your source, by the Galvin Brothers. This Motorola branded car radio cost a whopping $130, about a fourth of the cost of a brand new Model A Ford. In 1952 Blaupunkt, a German electronics firm, came up with the first FM car radio, while Becker offered their Mexico AM/FM car radio in 1953, the first AM/FM. Chrysler tried to include a record player in their cars in 1955, but this was a marginal idea that did not work well. In 1963, Becker struck again, with the first Solid State all-transistor radio (no more tubes) called the Monte Carlo. Ford and Motorola teamed up in 1965 to give us the 8-Track Player for cars. Thanks, but no thanks! In 1969 the first auto stereo was offered by, you guessed it, Becker, this time named Europa. Cassette tapes appeared in cars in 1970 for the first time, and in 1985 we got a quantum leap in sound quality with the first CD players. (Becker’s Mexico CD player was the first CD, and it came in Mercedes Benz cars.) The dawn of the 21st Century brought Satellite Radio (Sirius was first) and MP3 players. Not only did cars come with the capability to play MP3’s over the car’s sound system, but they then came out with hard drives installed right in the car so that you can download your own music into your car and not have to fool around with an MP3 player or even a thumb drive. Needless to say, speakers and acoustics are getting better all time, and driving in a car can be a wonderful musical experience.
3. Moonroof, 1973.
Ford coined this term for its 1973 Lincoln Continental Mark IV, but it was Nash in 1937 that came up with the Sunroof. So what is the difference? A “moonroof” is a glass panel that lets in light, with a shade to block the sun, while a sunroof is a sliding or removable solid light blocking cover that may or may not have clear glass or open air as an option. These pseudo-convertible open air tops can be manual or electrically powered, and are prone to leaking. T-Tops are another variation on this theme, and require fitting the bulky things in your garage or taking up all the cargo room in the car when you are driving open air.
4. Muffler, 1897.
Brothers Milton and Marshall Reeves of Indiana patented the muffler in 1897, and in the years since the debate over sound reduction versus exhaust flow restriction has raged. Fancy performance mufflers that minimize restricting exhaust flow have been offered, and even sound enhancing mufflers that make your car sound faster have been available for decades. Along with exhaust and tail pipes, all these exhaust related items were a nightmare for car owners since the components were subject to environmental conditions such as winter deicing salt and internal conditions that included water and sulfuric acid, making the exhaust system one of the fastest rusting parts of a car. Using stainless steel starting in the 1980’s made a tremendous difference, and now instead of a year or 2, exhaust systems can last 10 years or more! Can you imagine the noise level if mufflers had not been invented?
5. Windshield Wiper, 1903.
Before cars, other vehicles such as trains, streetcars, and boats had windshields, and yet no one had come up with the windshield wiper until Mary Alderperson, born in Alabama in 1866, came up with the idea after a trip to New York during the winter, when she rode a streetcar in which the driver had a terrible time trying to keep the windshield clear of snow and ice. Originally, windshield wipers were hand powered by moving a lever inside the car near the top of the windshield that moved the wiper blade. Later versions were powered by engine vacuum (boy, were those goofy!) and then the familiar electric power ones we know today. Even airplanes are equipped with windshield wipers, and today they have ones that have the washer fluid nozzle built onto the blade, and some have heated blades. Multi-speed and intermittent features are now common, and some luxury cars have little wipers for their headlights.
6. Power windows, 1940.
Introduced by Packard, the ability of the driver to open and close any window in the car without leaving the driver’s seat is a wonderful convenience. Today, it is almost impossible to find a car without electric windows (some low end trucks and off road vehicles being exceptions). Often new or power technology brings lowered reliability, but in my experience power windows are less breakage prone than mechanical ones. What has your experience been? (Note: One source I found listed Daimler as introducing power windows in 1948, which goes to show you how sources can vary.)
7. Power Door Locks, 1914.
First found on the Scripps-Booth luxury automobile, this feature was a rarity until Packard popularized the power locks on their 1956 models. A luxury car feature until the 1980’s, electric power locks are a great convenience, and drivers no longer have to bend and reach in bone breaking contortions to unlock doors for people to get into the car from the passenger side. Once upon a time, a measure of whether a girl was worthy as a girlfriend was whether or not she reached over to unlock the driver’s door after a boy let her in to the passenger side front seat. Boys will just have find other criteria to pick their girlfriends today! Not only do almost all cars now have the convenience of power locks, but since 1980 when Ford introduced keyless entry drivers can unlock their car without a key or key fob, especially valuable when you lock your keys in your car, or you want to leave your keys and valuables in the car (perhaps when swimming at the beach).
8. Remote Starter, 1980.
Invented by Tony Nespor (Patent issued 1983) and first offered by Fortin Electronics, the radio (fob) activated remote starter was at first only an after market device, and needed cars to be built with electronic ignition components and electric fuel pumps before such a device was feasible. It was not until 2003 when General Motors offered the first factory built in remote start, initially on high end cars. You can still buy after market add-on systems for your car, but many cars today offer remote start as an option, some luxury models offer it as standard equipment. This feature is great for warming up your car or cooling it off without having to go outside to the car to start it. Just remember to set the heating or cooling where you want it for when you remotely start the vehicle!
9. Back-up Camera, 2002.
The Infiniti Q45 in 2002 became the first car sold in the US to offer a rear-view back-up camera. In 2007, a driving safety law called for all cars to be so equipped, but not until 2014 was the mandatory date set (2018) by which time all cars are required to have such cameras installed at the factory. Most cars sold today already have the camera equipment installed. Hopefully drivers will use the cameras and display screen as intended and the number of people and children accidentally backed over will decline.
10. GPS, 1990.
The Mazda Eunos Cosmo (no, I never heard of it, either) was the first car to offer an on board GPS from the factory. Prior to the GPS, the 1981 Honda Electro Gyro-Cator was offered as an electronic mapping system with a map display that kept track of where you were by inertial navigation, and later in 1987 Toyota offered a CD-ROM system, but these were little more than electronic maps. The Global Positioning Satellite navigation systems were developed for military use, and originally the civilian access version was purposely degraded to a lesser level of precision. In 1995, Oldsmobile became the first American car maker to offer factory GPS, a system they called Guidestar. In 2000 the US government changed GPS policy to allow civilians to have access to precision location and truly useful GPS became a must have device, whether as an after market portable add-on or as a built in factory system. No longer would wives have to nag their husbands to ask for directions! Hallelujah!
Question for students (and subscribers): What items would you add to the list? Which item did we list that is your favorite? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Heptinstall, Simon. Cars: A Complete History. Thunder Bay Press, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Devchonka of link-type, diamond pattern snow chains on a front-wheel drive automobile, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.