(Lansing State Journal, February 24, 1993)
Question submitted by Luke Lako.
The first automobiles were powered by steam. This technique, although suitable for large vehicles like boats and trains, was not practical for smaller individual automobiles. So, a century after it was invented, in 1770, the automobile was still considered a toy.
However, in 1862, the French engineer Alphonse Beau de Rochas invented the principle of the 4-step combustion engine. In this engine, a fuel-air mix is introduced in the engine and the explosion of this mixture pushes directly on the piston. There is no need for an intermediate step like boiling water. A few years later, in 1876, the German Nikolaus August Otto built the first engine based on Beau de Rochas' principle.
This engine was very heavy and could only be used by industry and electrical power companies. Imagining how such an engine could effectively replace the steam powered engines of automobiles, the mechanic Gottlieb Daimler tried to build a much lighter engine working on the same principle. In 1885, he came up with a very light 2-step combustion engine that was used for boats, velocipeds and even tram ways. A few years later, in 1889, he invented a 4-step combustion engine that is the direct ancestor of the engine we find in our cars today. This invention opened the door to the automobile revolution in which the state of Michigan played such a prominent role.
Science Theatre would like to thank N. Mousseau for contributing to this article.