Home » The First Automobile In New York City Was Probably This Pre-Civil War Fire Engine

The First Automobile In New York City Was Probably This Pre-Civil War Fire Engine

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Despite what my Uncle Murray used to claim, the first car in New York City was not his 1967 Buick Skylark. For a city so crammed full of cars, it’s actually not really clear what the first actual automobile in NYC actually was. New York was quite a pioneer of private car ownership, boasting 500 automobiles in New York State in 1900, and the very first auto show was held that same year at Madison Square Garden. Incredibly, I think the first machine we could call an automobile actually showed up in NYC a solid 60 years earlier, but I think it tends to get overlooked for this honor because of what it was: a fire engine.

Despite the bullshit that Mercedes-Benz likes to spew about the “first automobile” being the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen, automobiles were around long, long before that, and in the United Kingdom there was even a sort of automotive boom, primarily in the form of steam omnibuses, in the 1820s and 1830s. Here in America things were a little slower, but there was an automobile of sorts as early as 1805, Oliver Evans’ self-propelled amphibious dredging machine, the Oruktor Amphibolos, which also became the first abandoned car.


In New York itself, I had always thought that the first car to be built/driven in the city had to be Richard Dudgeon’s 1855 “Red Devil” steam automobile. Dudgeon invented the hydraulic jack, and there’s still a company building selling, and renting such equipment with his name to this day! It seems Dudgeon used to drive his steam car around the city, which pissed off everyone so much the police eventually restricted him to one road. The first one burned down in the fire that consumed Crystal Palace in 1858, but the determined Dudgeon built another in 1866.

This is all to say that this is what I had always figured was the first car in New York City. That is, until I came across something in a copy of The American Car Since 1775, which I bought from a used book store for 75 cents. What I saw was a description of Paul Rapsey Hodge’s steam fire engine of 1840:


I’ve seen these sorts of steam fire-fighting machines before; normally, the steam engine is used only to power the pumps for the fire hoses, which was a huge advance in fire-fighting at the time, providing much more pressure and fire fighting power than the hand pumps that were used previously. These fire engines were usually horse-drawn, though, so I’ve never considered them automobiles.


The Hodge engine, which had the badass name The Exterminator, was originally also designed to be pulled by horses. The problem was the thing was so damn heavy that the horses couldn’t really get it moving well enough, especially uphill. As a result, it was adapted to be self-propelled, and I think it was at this moment that New York saw its first true automobile.

It seems to have only remained in service a couple of months, so I’m not sure we can call it a success, but it absolutely was a motorized, self-propelled vehicle that was driven over normal roads, so it’s an automotive victory in my book.

Let’s take a look at a contemporary drawing of The Exterminator to see how it may have been adapted to become a self-propelled automobile:Exterminator2

Just looking at this image and doing a lot of guessing, it seems like originally the two reciprocating horizontal cylinders (one on each side) of the main boiler were what provided the pumping action for the hoses, which I think were fed with water from the tall, narrow tank up front; the rear dome I think was the water tank for the steam engine.

My guess is that each piston rod was extended to drive the wheel via that off-center mount near the hub, which probably made for a jerky but definitely usable driving experience.

As far as steering goes, I think the smaller front wheels appear to be mounted on a central pivot, though I’m not clear on just where or how the person steering would have operated them. There does seem to be a long rod that I think is used to control the throttle or whatever they call that equivalent on a steam engine, so perhaps there were similar long control rods not shown here.

I know it’s technically possible that there was some other steam-powered road-going automobile in NYC prior to The Exterminator, but I don’t think it’s likely. 1840 was really quite early for self-propelled vehicles, especially in America, and the fact that The Exterminator only became self-propelled as an afterthought is what makes me think that it has a good claim on being the first automobile to drive in NYC streets, because it happened even before anyone even thought to want a self-propelled vehicle in the first place.

It was born from necessity, not desire, and even then it wasn’t quite good enough to really keep using, all of which says to me that this was likely to be the first time anyone in NYC had any experience with self-propelled machines.

So, the next time you’re in the Large Apple, or see movies or videos of car-gorged Manhattan streets, it’s worth remembering that the machine that started it all wasn’t even something most people think of as a car. But, if you ask me, it absolutely was. With that in mind, let’s give it up for The Exterminator, the first car to drive in New York City.



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14 Responses

  1. I wonder if the self propulsion was just a way to assist the horses? The steering and most of the pull could be accomplished with old-fashioned way with the steam just giving it a bit more boost to get going and get up the hills.

  2. I was gonna say that it doesn’t count as an automobile unless it is a self-propelled roadgoing machine that at least carries its own driver (hypothetical fully autonomous vehicles carry their own drivers even when no-one’s inside, I guess) but then I noticed the operator’s platform hanging off the back of this thing so I think it qualifies. If the operators had to walk along next to it and steer it by means of some kind of yoke (which is what I originally assumed) I don’t think that would quite be a car. This seems to make the cut, though.

  3. Neither of those domes is a water tank.

    The front one is an accumulator. It’s a sealed done of air on top of the pump which is used to smooth out the strokes of the piston pump and provide a constant flow of water.

    The rear one is a steam dome. Steam is fed from there to the throttle. It’s a way to make sure only ‘dry’ steam and not water makes its way to the pistons. (As water is incompressible, water in the steam pistons is very bad.)

    1. Adding on to that (from a wikipedia rabbit hole I went down the other day):

      Like Mack said, that dome on the back is a steam dome, and a lot of early “Haycock” style boilers had those right on top of the firebox. From what I gather, they were popular for less powerful applications in the first half of the 19th century as their maintenance was well known and widely available. They don’t seem to scale up in size/power as well as later boilers because the large hole for the steam dome came at a cost of structural rigidity, so there’s an upper limit on how much energy it can store. That’s why, once sturdier designs came along, locomotives quickly abandoned this type.

      For smaller applications like this fire engine (basically a traction engine with extra bits) though, a Haycock boiler would have been a good choice.

      Behold! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haycock_boiler

      As far as carrying extra water for the boiler, I’d assume the fire department wouldn’t have wanted to use city water (too much sediment / scale buildup likely), so it probably had a little water bowser it towed along like what we saw in Huibert’s article about the UK steam fair.

  4. Super interesting find! It’s always intriguing to see machines during the wagon-to-car transition phase where the design is clearly from a wagon/cart but some of the guts of mechanical power make an appearance

  5. Unless my kid’s train books are lying to me, the throttle on a train controls the volume of steam available in the lines. It is used in conjunction with the steam cut-off via the Johnson bar to control how much of the stroke that steam is being applied to the piston.

    Cruising with a cold boiler? Less throttle for longer duration. Hot boiler? The opposite. Takeoff? Maximum settings on both.

    1. The USGS has some awesome photography of their workers cruising around the Old West in steam-powered traction engines. Their archives are just an absolute goldmine, to be honest—they’ve did a ton of expeditions over the years, and they typically brought along an official photographer. Since they were doing federal government work it’s all public domain, and nowadays it’s all online! Tons of great stuff there.

  6. I suspect that although this was self propelled, someone had to run along in front to steer it.
    I don’t see anything that looks like brakes either so maybe they just reversed the power?

    1. I would imagine releasing the throttle would be enough to stop it considering how heavy it is. Maybe the person in front helped stop as well as steer? I can’t imagine this vehicle moving very fast at all.

  7. The regulator, that is what they call the throttle equivalent, probably because it is used to regulate the amount of steam that is introduced into the cylinder
    .Ah, Mr Steam, I do not believe you have met Mr. Piston

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