Automobiles – A Reader’s Companion to American History

The automobile, also known as the car and formerly as the motorcar, is one of the most common of modern technologies. It is a self-propelled vehicle, usually having four wheels, and fueled most often by gasoline, a liquid product. It is manufactured by the automotive industry, which has grown to become one of the world’s largest industries. There are currently about 1.4 billion cars in operation worldwide. The automobile has transformed the way people live, work and play. It has allowed people to escape the city and enjoy the countryside, visit friends and relatives who are far away, travel internationally, and shop for necessities and entertainment. It has brought with it new services such as hotels and motels, amusement parks and other recreation, fast food restaurants and service stations. It has also influenced social trends such as suburbanization, the increase of leisure activities and the emergence of the middle class in American society.

The first practical automobils were built in the late 19th century, with Karl Benz (whose design was copied by other inventors) and Gottlieb Daimler leading the way. At that time, automobiles were mostly for wealthy people and were made by hand. Henry Ford revolutionized the industry by developing an assembly line where workers perform one task and parts are passed on a conveyor belt, enabling a much larger number of people to afford an automobile. Ford also paid his employees $5 a day, which was unprecedented at the time.

From the 1930s on, the United States became the center of the world automobile industry. Many countries established national automobile industries as well, including Belgium (home to Vincke, which copied Benz), Switzerland (with Germain and Linon making cars, both of which were based on the Gobron-Brillie), Sweden (by Hammel), Denmark (Nagant), France (by FIAT) and Germany (by Benz, Henkel, Figg, Vagnfabrik AB and MAN).

In recent years, technological advances have enabled manufacturers to reduce automobiles’ energy consumption. In addition, environmental concerns have prompted some countries to adopt stricter fuel efficiency standards. With these changes, the era of annually restyled road cruisers appears to be nearing its end.

This article is an excerpt from The Reader’s Companion to American History by Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1991.

Throughout most of the 20th century, it was nearly impossible to imagine life without an automobile. Although the automobile had been invented by the 1880s, it wasn’t until the advent of Henry Ford and mass production that most Americans could afford to own one. This invention changed the world in more ways than any other in history. It created a new economic and social structure, gave people more freedom than ever before, and made it possible to reach many places in the country that were previously unavailable by any other means of transportation.

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