Home » The First Attempt To Patent An Automobile In America Was Laughed Out Of Congress

The First Attempt To Patent An Automobile In America Was Laughed Out Of Congress

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As I think I’ve revealed before, I have a sort of obsession with the really early automobiles, and especially regarding my longstanding beef with Mercedes-Benz for claiming that they invented the automobile, which they very much did not. The very early history of automobiles is a rich, complex, strange, and wonderful tapestry, and it brings me a lot of joy when I find interesting bits of it to share with you. This particular fact I think is a very significant one, and one that highlights both an often-overlooked very early motoring pioneer and reveals how strange and unimaginable people once thought about the very idea of a self-propelled wheeled vehicle. The person I want to tell you about is Nathaniel Read, and he could have had America’s very first automobile patent, if only everyone didn’t think it was such an absurd joke.

Nathaniel Read was born in 1759, ten years before Nicholas-Josef Cugnot first demonstrated the very first actual automobile, the Cugnot Steam Drag. So, he wasn’t the inventor of the very first automobile, and, really, there’s no evidence he actually built any actual running cars at all, but he did design one that was very plausible and could have worked, but even more significantly, he developed the Watt steam engine into the first true high-pressure steam engine and came up with the multi-tubular boiler that became the standard concept for steam vehicles ever after.

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The multi-tube boiler placed the water to be boiled within the fire, not just in a mass above it, via a network of water tubes inside the boiler that exposed more water to more heat, allowing for a boiler that heated water much faster and could be much smaller and more suited to vehicles than previous boiler designs. Just to see, in the most basic way, how Read’s multi-tube boiler changed steam engine boiler design so significantly, here’s a very schematic image of Read’s boiler and a much later steam locomotive boiler:

Nr Boiler

See? It’s all tubes! Without this innovation, high-pressure steam engined vehicles, whether land or sea or the murky places in between, would not have caught on in the way they did.

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Nathaniel Read never quite got the recognition he deserved, but he did live long enough to see his ideas put into practice. In the book with the very catchy title NATHAN READ: HIS INVENTION OF THE MULTI-TUBULAR BOILER AND PORTABLE HIGH-PRESSURE ENGINE, AND DISCOVERY OF THE TRUE MODE OF APPLYING STEAM- POWER TO NAVIGATION AND RAILWAYSwritten by his nephew, David Read, there is a quote from Nathan Read where he reflects on his contributions:

“I was too early in my steam projects. The country was then poor ; and I have derived neither honor nor profit from the time and money expended on them. But it is gratifying to know that the simple machinery which forty five years ago (without any knowledge of its having ever been used for that purpose) I selected as the most eligible for propelling boats through water, has been since that time successfully used in every quarter of the globe for that purpose. I was, however, still more gratified last spring, in viewing a locomotive engine, capable of moving a mile in two minutes, put in operation by steam generated in a portable boiler, constructed essentially on the same principle with one which I invented for that and other purposes about forty-six years ago, and for which I obtained a patent the first day that any patent was ever issued by authority of the United States.”

This notion of being too early, being too far ahead of the curve, is one that should be familiar to those of you who are interested in the history of technology. Sometimes you can be too much of a pioneer, to the point that, while your work may be the seed from which so much later developed, your innovations happened before people were really ready for them, and while you may earn some notoriety and credit by people who really know their stuff, the mainstream world likely will not know who the hell you are.

For a more recent example of this, consider the in-the-know famous Mother of All Demos, a demonstration given by Douglas Engelbart in 1968 that introduced hyperlinks, videoconferencing, email, graphical user interfaces, and the freaking computer mouse. Pretty much all the key ways you interact with your computer today, this man Engelbert came up with.

And, while, sure, he’s well known and respected, between his name and, say, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, which names do you think the average person associates with modern computing?

Here, you should watch this demo if you haven’t, because it’s absolutely incredible:

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But, of course, that’s a rough nearly couple centuries after what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how Nathan Read designed an automobile that used his improved boiler design and high-pressure steam engine. He also designed a steamboat, and was able to easily secure a patent on that, and I think the reasons why are interesting.

Steamboat

The general retelling of Read’s attempts to patent his inventions, which would have happened at the absolute very beginning of the United States Patent Office, is that while his boiler and steamship designs were accepted fairly easily, Congress “ridiculed” the idea of a steam-powered road vehicle so much, he withdrew his patent application. Other sources do suggest that a patent on the steam carriage was given in 1790, and there is a quote from Read himself describing the process:

Nr Quote

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“I have a distinct recollection , when my petition to Congress was read in Congress Hall by the Clerk of the House of Representatives, that when he came to that part which related to the application of steam to land carriages, a general smile was excited among the members, and the idea was considered there and at Salem, where I had a model of a steam-carriage constructed, as perfectly visionary.”

I think what is meant when Read says the idea was considered “perfectly visionary” is what we today might describe as “fantastical” or “delusional.” And, I think “a general smile was excited among the members” is indeed a genteel way of saying “they laughed at me.”

This is further supported by references from letters in the National Archives, one of which, when summarizing a letter from Joseph Willard, who was sending Read’s plans and drawings to Thomas Jefferson, summarizes the resulting congressional patent hearing thusly (emphasis mine):

Nathan Read (1759–1849), a minor New England inventor, presented his petition to Congress for a patent on his inventions on 8 Feb. 1790, some time before TJ received the present letter: these included plans for both a steamboat and steam road carriage. The latter was ridiculed to such an extent that he abandoned it and the former was based on a paddle-wheel arrangement not original with him, in consequence of which he presented a new petition on 1 Jan. 1791 and seven months later was granted letters patent for “a portable multitubular boiler, an improved double-acting steam engine, and a chain wheel method of propelling boats” (DAB).

I also take some issue with the characterization of Read as “a minor New England inventor.” Without his multitubular boiler, the railroad revolution wouldn’t have been possible, you smug National Archives nerds!

It’s also frustrating to see this because Read’s steam carriage plans were actually quite clever:

Steamcar Diag

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His design was pretty straightforward and simple, and used a pair of steam-driven cylinders that acted on pinions on the rear wheel axles (B) via a ratcheting system (G). The boiler (shown much smaller in this diagram) is C, and you can see how it feeds the twin cylinders via steam pipes (D). The exhaust pipes (a) were even designed to point backwards, in case any action-reaction motive force from the steam exhaust could prove helpful.

Steamcarriagemodel

There’s a model of what the Read Steam Automobile could have looked like, and, really, for 1791, that’s a pretty advanced car. It’s operable by one person, has a steering wheel, mid-engine, rear-wheel drive – why it’s basically a late 1700s Porsche Boxster!

The fact that this was the object of ridicule and a steamboat – which was really just a slightly different packaging of the same basic technology – was treated with the seriousness and respect it deserved is fascinating to me. I wonder how much of it has to do with the fact that sailing vessels have always at least had the appearance of self-propulsion, even if it’s pretty muddy about if actually is, something I’ve wondered about before. You can see a boat move, seemingly on its own, with wind or current. And while a carriage sent down a hill will roll with gravity, the idea of a carriage moving on its own, not pulled by some hapless animal, perhaps was too strange a concept for those old powdered-wig and snuff-addled late 1700 congresspeople to imagine.

What if a patent had been granted, and before 1800 Read had gone into business building steam vehicles? Would we have had a boom in steam bus service, like England did in the 1830s?

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Would rail development have been delayed, or even skipped over in favor of steam road vehicles? Who knows? We’ll never really know, all because the members of Congress thought the idea of a self-propelled road machine was just too ridiculous to even consider.

Hell, now you can get a patent for an NFTThat‘s the kind of shit they should be laughing out of the patent office.

 

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Relatedbar

The End Credits For The Old ‘Speed Racer’ Show Featured Some Shockingly Good Early Automotive History

Here’s A Look At A Working Bus From 1833: Cars Before Cars

Is A Sailboat A Self-Propelled Vehicle? What About A Cable Car? Or An Elevator?

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PW Graves
PW Graves
20 days ago

“…..via a network of water tubes inside the boiler…:

Um, I believe it is the other way around. They are fire tubes. The heat runs through the tubes and the water surrounds the tubes. At least that is what the guy at the B&O Railroad Museum told me. (BTW, the B&O was the first railroad)

Chronometric
Chronometric
20 days ago

Look closely at the steam carriage diagram. If I an interpreting correctly, the steering wheel in the center does not turn the front wheels. Instead, it controls the steam feed to the two cylinders on the rear wheels, regulating their speed individually with the angle of the steering wheel. It has tank steer!

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
20 days ago

I’m In! As the tire supplier!

Aardvark775
Aardvark775
21 days ago

Congress not understanding new technology? Seems like nothing has changed and the US government still functions just as the founders envisioned.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
21 days ago

The basic idea of the tube steam boiler used the other way cools many, many buildings now: when you run water through a bunch of lengthwise tubes in a large pipe full of refrigerant, you can then safely pipe the resulting chilled water all over the mall or a high rise.

Automobiles arriving earlier wouldn’t have stunted railroad growth much: they excel at moving heavy cargo long distances. Early roads in what became the United States were shockingly bad—and quite expensive to maintain in passable form. Many were toll roads because that was the only way governments could get them built. There were also mandated ‘road service’ hours people had to put in maintaining roads. Lack of decent roads was a serious impediment to settling west. And commerce between the states.

—there’s a lot more: I recently read a dissertation from the 1950s on road-building in Virginia because I was checking the glib-sounding story that Route 11 was originally a Native Peoples trade/migration route.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
21 days ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Exactly, steam road vehicles and railroads basically developed concurrently in the UK, they pretty much coexisted from the start.

Wagonsarethebestanswer
Wagonsarethebestanswer
21 days ago

Umm.. Torch: is it Douglas EngelbErt or EngelbArt ??

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
21 days ago

An early Boxster? More like a Boxstore considering speed handling, but yeah, I’ll give you the point.

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
21 days ago

This is Richard Trevithick erasure! Me and the former Empire of British Isle are offended! Also get those vertical tubes out of here, you know if your on rails your going horizontal!

Pisco Sour
Pisco Sour
21 days ago

Hell, now you can get a patent for an NFT

No, you actually can’t. Depending on how the application is written, you might be able to get a patent for a system/method of generating, authenticating and transferring NFTs, but not for the NFT itself.

The Patent Office has gotten better in the last decade or so at getting the “ridiculous” software-based inventions out of the patent system, though silly stuff probably still gets through from time to time.

Edited to add: I suppose you could generate an NFT that is software code that executes a process that could be patentable. But even in this case, the underlying process would be patented – not that specific instance of the code that is the NFT.

Last edited 21 days ago by Pisco Sour
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
21 days ago

Actually Leonardo De Vinci not the teenage mutant ninja ???? created a steam powered cart long before that. I can only surmise putting a seat on it doesn’t disqualify his involvement in creating mechanical powered vehicles?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
21 days ago

Dang my search was for steam, the results said steam, and yet the article was spring and ⏰. This is why AI doesn’t work. It can’t differentiate between expanding a search to differentiate realms and limiting results to desired terms. Also how can you sell ads on a platform where an AI is instructed to block ads? How about a poll asking the #1 wish for internet usage. Blocking sponsored ads and limiting results to desired results? Does anyone really need or desire or have time to dig through tons of ads and millions of results because they include the word and or the in search terms?

V10omous
V10omous
21 days ago

The steamboat was ridiculed too.

Remember “Fulton’s Folly”?

Or the possibly apocryphal story of Napoleon dismissing Fulton because the idea of a ship sailing against the wind was too ridiculous to consider?

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
21 days ago
Reply to  V10omous

That’s true, and I believe Cugnot’s gun carriage was met with a lot of skepticism and was built largely through the patronage of Louis XV

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
21 days ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

Da Vinci also created a steam powered cannon. Good thing he wasn’t American or patent theft would be Cugnots claim to fame.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
21 days ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

1800 years after Archimedes, to which he graciously attributed it to, unlike many of his other “inventions” that were improved versions of lost or forgotten previous discoveries.

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
20 days ago
Reply to  V10omous

Robert Fulton was a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately; it’s possible that the moniker “Fulton’s Folly” was apocryphal or at least exaggerated for effect, as there had already been a number of successful steamboats such as John Fitch’s Perseverance which first ran in 1787. In the summer of 1790, some 17 years before Fulton’s Clermont started operating, Fitch (and Henry Voigt) had a steamboat providing regular ferry service on the Delaware River and accumulated several thousand miles of service before the investors pulled out (either due to the contract expiring or the profit margin not being high enough) and left Fitch & Voigt…adrift. And in 1791 Fitch tried to secure broad patents for his steamboat; he had investors lined up but they balked when they couldn’t get the monopoly on steamboat patents they wanted. Apropos of this article about Nathan Read’s patenting endeavors, as per Wikipedia:
“The newly created federal Patent Commission did not award the broad monopoly patent that Fitch had asked for, but rather a patent of the modern kind for the new design of Fitch’s steamboat. It also awarded steam-engine-related patents dated that same day to Rumsey, Nathan Read, and John Stevens. The loss of a monopoly due to these same-day patent awards led many of Fitch’s investors to leave his company.”
It probably didn’t help that John Fitch had rather the reputation of being an ill-tempered crank which made it difficult to secure funding. In any case, Fitch’s trials and triabulations with investors raise the question of whether capitalism is truly a driver of innovation or actually a hindrance to progress (e.g., George B. Selden’s predatory automobile patent, not to mention Thomas Edison’s obfuscatory efforts in the motion picture industry among others) but that’s a topic for another day.

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