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Nicholas Cugnot   1725-1804

By Ralph Stein

Nicolas Joseph Cugnot, a French army engineer, was the first man to sit behind the controls of a self-propelled road vehicle, designed for hauling field artillery. Cugnot’s machine was a three-wheeler with a chassis built of heavy timbers capable of carrying four passengers at two to four miles per hour. Its steam-making capabilities were not much: every fifteen minutes it had to stop and boil water. Its great pear-shaped copper boiler and the two monstrous cylinders of 50 liters capacity, to which it fed steam, plus its primitive driving mechanism, all hung from and turned with the single front wheel. It didn’t steer well, and had no stopping power; it is said that Cugnot once knocked over the wall of the courtyard where it was being tested and another time upset it on a Paris street.

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