Whether they are owned by a business or an individual, automobiles are the most widely used form of personal transportation. Automobiles have had a profound effect on our society and on the way we live, work, and play. The automobile has transformed the landscape and the social structure of our nation and has brought the world closer together. There are currently 590 million passenger cars in operation worldwide and 140 million in the United States, and the number is growing rapidly.
The scientific and technical building blocks of the automobile go back several hundred years. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist, invented the first internal combustion engine fueled by gunpowder in the late 1600s. Huygens’ engine could propel a carriage at low speeds and had a limited range. The automobile as we know it was perfected in Germany and France toward the end of the nineteenth century by such men as Gottlieb Daimler, Karl Benz, and Nicolaus Otto.
Daimler and Benz both built early prototypes of the automobile, but neither one ever produced a vehicle that was commercially successful. Nicolaus Otto built the first successful gas powered automobile in 1895, and Ransom Eli Olds introduced large-scale production line manufacturing at his Oldsmobile plant in 1902. Henry Ford innovated mass-production techniques with the Model T runabout, a car that sold for less than the average annual wage in America.
Automobiles have come to represent the symbol of freedom and mobility. People with access to an automobile can travel great distances quickly and easily, and this has changed the distribution of jobs and opportunities in the economy. The development of highways has allowed automobiles to link cities with suburbs, and the expansion of suburban areas has been greatly facilitated by the automobile.
Today, the automobile is a vital part of the global economy. Automobile production has become a major industry, with many manufacturers producing hundreds of models. The automobile has also influenced the design and location of buildings and other infrastructure, including airports. The ubiquity of automobiles has made it possible for people to work at home, and for families to stay together while working and playing.