How the Automobile Shaped America: Technology

June 11, 2013

No other innovation has so quickly altered as many aspects of modern society as the automobile. What started as a plaything for the wealthy quickly became the most ubiquitous piece of technology in American life. Check out some of the automobile-inspired innovations and inventions that we now see and enjoy in everyday life.

From steam and ethanol engines to acetylene headlights to lead-acid batteries, early automobile makers borrowed the technology of the day to make their inventions run. When something didn’t work, they got rid of it. Or, in most cases, they simply adapted and tinkered with the technology until it was transformed into something workable and, in many cases, wondrously applicable beyond the world of cars.

In this way, cars became a kind of Darwinian catalyst for technological change and a great conduit for bringing all these amazing advancements to the masses. Here are just a few examples: 


Alternative Power

Thomas Edison Detroit Electric Car 1913

Mention “auto industry” and “alternative power” in the same sentence and immediately the General Motors EV1 debacle (and the movie Who Killed The Electric Car) of the mid-1990s comes to mind.

But this one incident overlooks a long history of auto makers thinking outside the box when it came to finding sources for alternative power. The tradition goes all the way back to 1769 when French engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot created the very first road vehicle—a self-propelled “military tractor”—that was powered by steam. In 1826, Samuel Morey developed the first ethanol-fueled experimental car. American automakers first began tinkering with electric-powered vehicles in the late 1800s, when A. L. Ryker and William Morrison built a six-passenger wagon now considered the first real and practical EV.

Fast forward to now. Back in January, Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals, released the results of its study of the global automobile industry’s patent activity. Between 2006 and 2011, patent activity in the alternative power area grew by 182 percent, more than any other technological area in the automotive industry. Toyota, Honda and GM filed for roughly 22,255 unique patent inventions during that time. It’s not a stretch to think that cars will one day be the catalyst for alternative power innovation and the primary conduit by which it is rolled out to the public.

Vulcanized Rubber

Charles Goodyear

What do shoe soles, garden hoses, and hockey pucks have to do with cars? In its uncured form natural rubber is sticky, deforms easily when warm, and is brittle in cold temperatures. But in 1844, the U.S. granted Charles Goodyear a patent for vulcanization, a process that used sulfur, heat and pressure to transform rubber into something amazingly durable, malleable and infinitely versatile. For over 100 years, the primary use for vulcanized rubber has been the creation of automobile tires. But a century of innovation and the subsequent refinement of the process resulted in technology that provides an endless variety of modern rubber products used by people throughout the world.


Trucker using Bell Labs mobile phone

Mobile phones for automobiles became available from some telephone companies in the 1940s when American engineers from Bell Labs began working on a system that allowed mobile users to place and receive telephone calls from automobiles.

Around this same time (1945), citizen band or CB radio was invented and soon worked its way into the hands of everyday Americans—particularly truckers and tradesmen such as carpenters, plumbers, and electricians looking for a fast and convenient source of communication while driving to and from the job site.

In 1973, the first cellular phone call was made by Martin Cooper, a Motorola engineer now known as the father of the cell phone. Inspired by the handheld communication device used by Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk, Cooper convinced Motorola executives to invest $100 million in cellular technology between 1973 and 1993.

Drivers arguably created one of the greatest needs (not to mention a ready marketplace) for companies racing to perfect cellular technology. Now, mobile phones are seen as a technological necessity by millions of people. But looking at history, a convincing argument that could be made that, were it not for the automobile, the history of wireless communication would have played out very differently, if at all.


Automobile record player

In 1929, as the famous story goes, two young men named William Lear and Elmer Wavering drove their girlfriends to a romantic spot overlooking the Mississippi River town of Quincy, Illinois. One of the women remarked how much nicer it would be if they had some music in the car to listen to.

Lear and Wavering were inspired. They began working with the Galvin Corporation and in a few years developed what is now considered the one of the first commercial car radios, the Motorola model 5T71, which sold for between $110 and $130 and could be installed in most popular automobiles.

Lear went on to earn over 100 patents for groundbreaking electronic devices for cars and airplanes. In his spare time, he founded the Lear Jet Corporation and also invented the 8-track tape, which spread quickly throughout the world in the 1960s thanks to the booming automobile industry.

From there cassettes, CDs and now MP3 players have become subsequent steps on the evolutionary ladder of personal entertainment. And to think: the inspiration for the idea to make music mobile began inside an automobile.



  1. Bill Leake Evergreen, CO

    You're mistaken. Nothing--so far--comes close to comparing to what computers (read: the chips) and what they've done via cell phones, computers, digital recording devices, medical devices, automobiles, etc. worldwide--for both peaceful and hostile uses. The automobile is 19th. century technology that hasn't kept up by a factor of perhaps ten.

  2. chat jones Bogalusa, La.

    Keep in mind Mr. Leake that without the automobile all the other things you mentioned would be useless to the vast majority of people being without a means to obtain and use those products. Remember the automobile is the great equalizer in our modern society.