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Posted by on Feb 26, 2009 in Guest Contributor, Politics | 10 comments

Who Invented The Automobile? (Guest Voice)


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 “[t]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