FEBRUARY 3, 1997
First self-propelled vehicle
Historians generally set 1769 as the year the first self-propelled land vehicle--a cumbersome steam-powered, front-wheel-drive artillery tractor--was tested on the grounds of the artillery arsenal of Paris. It was one of the two steam vehicles designed and built by French Army Captain Nicholas Cugnot.
"As the capacity of the boiler was out of proportion, the carriage could not run for more than 115 minutes without then having a rest of the same amount of time," according to a historical document of the day.
The testing ran amuck, however, when the vehicle "proved so violent and difficult to steer, it knocked down a solid wall," reported the same document.
A German patent issued to Carl Benz on January 29, 1886, for his invention of a self-propelled gasoline-powered "Motorwagon," has become the official birth certificate of the automobile.
"Jumbo to the rescue"
The fire engine was one of the first public service vehicles to be self-propelled. Although a steam-powered fire engine was invented in 1840, its descendants did not come into popular use until about 1875.
The most famous of these vehicles was "Jumbo," the 8-1/2-ton mainstay of the Hartford, Connecticut, Fire Department. Built in 1889, it served the Hartford community for two decades.