Who Invented The Automobile?

by Kathy Gill

At the risk of sounding like President Clinton, it depends in large part on how you define “automobile” and “invention.”

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama indirectly and incorrectly asserted that the automobile was invented in America:

I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it.

Was the automobile invented in America?

Short answer: no.

The Library of Congress credits German Karl Benz (of Mercedes-Benz — seen in the front seat on top of his creation in the photo above) with inventing the “first true automobile” (one that had an internal combustion engine). That happened in 1885. However, the Library of Congress also notes that “

he history of the automobile is very rich and dates back to the 15th century when Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs and models for transport vehicles.”

As Mary Bellis points out, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot build the first self-powered vehicle for the road. In 1769. His invention is “recognized by the British Royal Automobile Club and the Automobile Club de France as being the first” automobile.

Most inventions have more than one “inventor” although mindshare is usually held by one person. In the U.S., that mindshare often goes to Henry Ford, who did not invent the automobile but who revolutionized its production.

Why is this important, politically?

Obama’s gross misstatement would be considered a gaffe had it been an off-the-cuff (extemporaneous) statement. However, state of the union speeches are, usually, vetted by a wide-range of eyes. So this is not a gaffe, it’s a rhetorical question that is false at its core. In my opinion, that’s worse, because the rhetoric is deliberately constructed as an emotional appeal (pride in country) as an argument for pouring more public money into Detroit’s coffers.

Of course, some Democrats disagree.

Kathy Gill is a former state and federal lobbyist who currently teaches at the University of Washington and researches the impact of social media on political institutions. She teaches at the University of Washington (Seattle) in the Master’s in Digital Media program, Department of Communication, where she researches the impact blogging and other forms of social media (eg, wikis, YouTube) is having on political institutions and discourse. She also writes the U.S. Politics blog at About.com.

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  • Kon

    For all practical purposes…the US did invent the automobile. What had come from France and Germany, would be best described as the manualmobile. Might as well credit them for inventing the hammer when all they did was pick up a rock and strike a object.

    • Aristides

      The facts speak for themselves. The U.S. did not become a player in autos until the early 1900’s despite some revisionist history by our current crop of politicians. I suppose you believe that Al Gore really did invent the internet also.

  • SweetWilliam

    For goodness’ sake! Is this all you have to say after listening to a President describe his plan to save the country? You nit pick a single fact? There are no words…

    • Aristides

      The man (and/or his speechwriters) is fond of exaggerations, distortions, and outright fabrications. Therefore, this “nit being picked” as you so eloquently describe it, has a depth of meaning that you fail to grasp.

  • greenschemes


    I agree with this and I used to try to point this out about Barak Obama about how he made this gaffe or that gaffe and it seemed to just go over peoples heads. Was this a gaffe? Most likely not. I agree that it was intended to instill pride in the Big 3 because Obama and the Democrats are beholden to UAW and letting the big 3 fold is not an option for the Democrats.

    One classic example of this was how Barak Obama said that he was going to sit down with Hamas and negotiate peace but that Hamas had to essentially stop being terrorists. Well all well and good for the jews but it certainly was not comforting to Hamas. The president in his haste to show his strength and support for Israel was undermining his own stated goal by essentially blaming the failure of peace on Hamas. Not an ideal way to achieve peace by coming to the table with a predetermined belief that one side or the other is at fault.

    What seems lost in a world rapidly rushing headlong into the next month, year and decade is the value of reading into speeches what is intended and subliminal. There was a time when every speech given by a politician and certainly heads of state was dissected and analyzed for the hidden meanings that were almost always there.

    No one cares anymore it seems what is implied. Only what is said. Most of my posts are buried with hidden meanings and concepts intended to instill in people the desire to rebut me by having to do some research to make sure of their facts. Thats the teacher in me……Perhaps I should not have indicated that but I have searched long and hard for someone on the internet who still believes in looking for the real meanings in what is said by politicians.

  • Manchester2

    That line about us inventing the automobile was pretty funny, actually. Of course, the French did. And they invented the internet, too, not Al Gore. They had what was called the “mini-tel” years ago. For all practical purposes, it was the prototype.

  • RememberNovember

    well put, however in American history post WW2 the Germans got short shrift. Henry Americans invented the Automobile Industry. Kind of like saying Americans invented aviation- we didn’t we just perfected/expanded it. But the fact that the hatchetheads seize upon this one anecdote and ignore the rest of the substance is proof positive why we are in the mess we are in. Sorry folks but the recovery is not going to show up on your Blackberry’s. We as Americans have become too Reactive as opposed to Proactive.

  • mikeyes

    What Americans did (and especially Henry Ford) was take a rich person’s toy and turn it into an indispensible part of society. In Europe the car was a class issue, if you were of a certain class and income, you had a car. The same was true in the States prior to the assembly line of Henry Ford. The everyday automobile was a revolutionary invention in this country that eventually spread to the rest of the world. It also increased our manufacturing capacity and made possible the ready availability of thousands of products that otherwise would not be made available to the masses due to cost.

    In that respect America invented the automobile. And a Benz is still the upper class car.

    Of course, the original comment about who invented the car is not there to be historically correct, it is an attempt to belittle the efforts of the president. I don’t agree with all that he says, but I don’t think he is trying to save one of the largest industries in this country in dire economic times simply because he is a pawn of the labor unions. A lot of jobs depend on this and if such an effort can be made to work – the way it did for Chrysler many years ago (was that a republican that did that?) – then it will benefit all of us, including Republicans.

  • Thank for the feedback… let me take them one at a time.

    To i420 and SweetWilliam and mikeyes and (maybe) RememberNovember:
    No, this is not “all I have to say” … nor is it intended to “belittle” the President.

    This it is a short post about one thing: how Obama’s speech rhetorically manipulated emotions by playing the “nationalism” card. What’s interesting about your responses is that I’m guessing if Bush had said something equally inane, your response would have been outrage or a dig about his intellectual prowess.

    To GreenSchemes:
    What can I say? LOL! I’m a teacher and a student of rhetoric for too many years. I was on an award-winning debate team in high school. I placed second in extemporaneous speaking at the state competition (Georgia).

    Words Matter!

    To Manchester2:
    You are correct about MiniTel as a prototype for today’s internet. 🙂

    To MikeEyes:
    Henry Ford knew that if he would have to pay his employees a good wage if he wanted them to be able to buy his car. That, coupled with mass production (which I’ve subsequently learned was first implemented by Olds), did make the automobile more affordable. But it was by no means a “mass” product.

    What turned the automobile into a mass product — what irrevocably changed American culture — was the Interstate system (a military project) and the death of city-wide mass transit (a story for another day). Not Ford.

  • Aristides

    Amazing how so many latched on to the validity of the comment and failed to see the true point of the piece; propaganda.

    The “facts-be-damned” rhetoric from this president is disgusting to any thinking, rational person. I for one, will not be manipulated by it and can only hope that at least a few of you out there will see him for what he is; a slick poster child for the far left loonies that wish to spend us into the poorhouse!