Steam car from 1675 replicated

employees of the technical university of ingolstadt and students have developed a scale model of the first self-propelled forward-moving vehicle. (image: THI)

It really could turn laps on its own: tinkerers at the technical university of ingolstadt have confirmed the functionality of what is apparently the first self-propelled object in history. It was a small steam-powered automobile with which the Jesuit missionary ferdinand verbiest wanted to impress the Chinese emperor almost 350 years ago. The information on the reconstruction came from a description of the device in a historical document from dillingen.

Am 29. January 1886 saw an event that would change the course of history: this date is considered the birthday of the automobile – carl benz received the patent for his internal combustion engine vehicle. However, this was only the most successful development, as benz was not the first to build a self-driving object. In principle, other inventors had already set cars in motion using combustion techniques, and there had also been versions based on steam technology before that. But these early developments fell into oblivion. This also applies to the oldest example, as reported by the technical university of ingolstadt (THI): the Belgian Jesuit priest and scholar ferdinand verbiest (1623 to 1688) designed a self-propelled vehicle almost 350 years ago.

"self-propelled" with steam technology

However, the machine, which was only 60 centimeters long and 30 centimeters wide, could not be driven around on four wheels. However, the transport of people or loads was not the goal of verbiest, who lived at the chinese imperial court in peking at the time. the historian gerd treffer from ingolstadt has dealt with this story in more detail. As he explains, the Jesuit missionary and scholar was concerned with proving that the principle of the "self-mover" works with steam. The small vehicle was intended to impress the Chinese emperor and show what technical achievements the West was capable of, treffer explains.

The function of the device was based on the recoil effect of water vapor escaping from a nozzle. According to tradition, this principle was already known in antiquity: the early engineer heron of alexandria constructed a ball that spun with a hiss – the first known heat engine in history. But it was not understood and used as such. Verbiest went at least one step further: he converted steam pressure into the movement of wheels. Thus his construction, steered by an oar-like fifth wheel, made its rounds in the imperial palace. As treffer reports, verbiest summarized all the scientific achievements of the jesuits in china for his religious superiors in a book that was printed in dillingen at the time. It also contains a description of the small wagon.

Description in a historical print from dillingen

There it says: "in its center I placed a basin full of glowing coals and above this container an aeolopile; to the axle of the front wheels I connected a bronze gear wheel, whose teeth, lying crosswise and horizontal, engaged with another small wheel, which, attached to an axle perpendicular to the horizontal, acted in such a way that, when the latter axle turned, the carriage moved," wrote verbiest. As he further explains, he added another wheel to this axle, which had wind-catching structures on the outside. "pressing on it, the wind ejected from a narrow nozzle of the aeolopile turned the whole wheel and at the same time propelled the carriage, which ran for an hour and more in a rather rapid manner."

steam car from 1675 replicated

This is what the first self-propelled device must have looked like. pressure from the 18. century, originator unknown – possibly based on a replica by lorenz bockmann. (image: THI)

verbiest did not provide a drawing or a construction plan for it. There is, however, a historical sketch by an unknown artist from a later period which illustrates what the device must have looked like. As treffer’s research shows, it was probably based on a replica made by the physicist johann lorenz bockmann from karlsruhe about 100 years after verbiest’s time. However, this model was lost.

Functionality confirmed

Treffer’s desire to actually see the vehicle in motion then formed the basis of a project at the THI: under the leadership of thomas suchandt, a team of students from the mechanical engineering faculty used the descriptions from verbiest’s book to create design plans for the automobile. On their basis they then built a scale model of the car. the woodwork was carried out by pupils of the montessori school in golstadt, among others. The construction also involved experimentation: "some parts flew around our ears," reports suchandt. "the whole project was a journey into the history of technology. We were dealing with things that had not been used for centuries," says the mechanical engineering expert.

But, as the THI reports, the project was successful: the first outing was a success, and this confirmed that verbiest’s concept could provide locomotion. "the use of water vapor as a means of propulsion was already known to the ancient egyptians. But this heat engine, called aeolipile, was considered a curiosity at the time with no practical use. the spectacular thing about verbiest’s development is therefore that the object can move itself," sums up suchandt.

The project is now to be continued: for the construction of another version of the vehicle, the tinkerers want to stick even more closely to the use of historical materials, writes THI.

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