One long ride through history 

The evolution of the automobile in the United States

IF one would imagine a time when there were no cars to take people places, one would have to travel way back in time to be able to fully perceive what it is like. The invention of the automobile has been a game-changer throughout the course of history.

The said machinery amped up the meaning of convenience to a whole new level that was deemed impossible back then. Let us take a long ride back to how it all started.

The first vehicle in the United States that came close to the automobile was arguably built by Oliver Evans in 1805. The built and structure that Evans created was described as amphibious and therefore could traverse by land and water via wheels and paddlewheels respectively.

Years after, the first American bicycle was manufactured in 1878 at the Weed Sewing Machine in Hartford, Connecticut. It is called the “Columbia Bicycle” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the executive department of the United States.

The NHSA issued a timeline that showed the evolution of vehicles and automobile industry from its invention up until the present. It was around 1885 when the first seat belt was patented by Edward J. Claghorn of New York. The seatbelt, like its purpose to this day, was intended to hold the passengers in place should the car collide with something, thus reducing the impact of a forceful slam.

For other scholars, the first American car was the Duryea automobile built by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. It was first demonstrated in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893. Frank and Charles Duryea founded the company and built a one-cylinder “Ladies Phaeton,” with four wheels and no roof, making it an open-air car. It was regarded as the first successful gasoline engine vehicle.

Not long after, the same company created a second Duryea in 1894 and another one on Thanksgiving Day in 1895. Roughly that year as well, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company started the commercial production of the first American car, as stated in the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Due to the demand for the manufacturing of the said machinery, the country had to regulate the use of the automobile, especially on roads and highways. It was the same year Connecticut created the first statewide traffic laws. The new laws regulated motor vehicles, limiting their speed to 12 miles per hour (mph) in cities and 15 mph on country roads.

After a year, the Oldsmobile was otherwise known as the Olds Motor Vehicle Company from Detroit, Michigan dominated the marketplace. The said company was established in 1897 but only gained popularity in 1902.

The Ford Motor Company launched in a converted factory and built its first American car, the Model A that same year. The  Ford Company gave birth to the idea of the assembly line,  which operated by giving each worker the responsibility for one task. Up until this time, employees were assigned multiple tasks on building automobiles and walked around the plants to accomplish them.

William Durant formed General Motors — another automobile manufacturing company in 1908. Meanwhile, the Ford Motor/ Cadillac Company introduced the Model T and in its first year sold over 10,000 cars.

General Motors then bought the Cadillac Automobile Company in 1909 for $4.5 million. In 1910, to further promote driver and pedestrian safety, the State of New York introduced the very first drunk driving laws. It penalized drivers for operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, hence the term driving under the influence (DUI).

The Ford Motor Company continued its success as it sold the Model T in 1914. With the assembly line, the Highland Park, Michigan plant produced 300,000 cars in 1914, resulting in Ford to lower the price of the Model T for 14 consecutive years, making the car affordable to the middle class.

Contrary to the common belief that Henry Ford invented the automobile, historical accounts proved otherwise. He and his company invented the assembly line so automobiles could be accessible to more Americans.

In 1920, three automobile companies rose to the ranks — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler became the “Big Three” car manufacturing companies. Ford, in particular, garnered over eight million registrations. Since then, that year was considered the peak of growth in car ownership. By the end of the decade, the number of registrants tripled to 23 million.

As the automobile industry grew, several other industries soon followed. There was a great need for the vulcanized rubber to be used in car wheels. Roads, highways and bridges were deemed necessary so the state and government had to fund public infrastructure for easier transport.

As the government got involved, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 came into the picture. Gas stations and mechanic shops became necessary. The oil and steel industries boost in numbers as the demand for automobile increased. Long drives were deemed possible so truck stops and motels began to line major highways.

To further regulate the roads and streets, the three-way traffic light with colors – red, yellow and green was introduced in the United States in 1930. Not long after, airbags were invented in 1951 as protection for drivers and passengers. Airbags are used to reduce the impact of an automobile crash.

In 1966, the Congress established the Department of Transportation whose stood by their mission to, “Serve the United States by ensuring a fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation system that meets our vital national interests and enhances the quality of life of the American people, today and into the future.”

Two years after, the Federal Safety Standards for cars took effect as a means to protect drivers against unreasonable risk of crashes occurring as a result of the design, construction or performance of motor vehicles.

The establishment of NHTSA followed suit in 1970.  Its primary role is to reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes. They are able to accomplish such by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. They also receive grants from the State and local governments to enable them to conduct effective local highway safety programs. Five years later, the government ordered that the national maximum speed limit is set at 55 mph.

As one backtracks how the U.S. automotive industry developed, one can help but wonder how invention seemed to be faster these days. More and more technological advances are discovered daily and who knows what would appear before our eyes in the near future. There is no harm in looking back at how the humankind progressed. After all, that is the only way one can see how far they have come.

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