The First Automobile Of Any Type Was Built By This Flemish Priest In China

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The pre-history of automobiles is really pretty murky. As much as Mercedes-Benz likes to claim the invention of the motor car, the truth is much more complicated, with many different inventors adding parts to what eventually became the car. Most people would point to Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot's 1769/1771 artillery tractor as the first real self-propelled vehicle. The truth, however, seems to be that nearly a century before that, a Jesuit missionary in China actually built the first self-propelled vehicle. Though, to be fair, it was a toy.

That missionary was named Ferdinand Verbiest, and aside from having the verb-iest last name ever, Ferdinand was a very accomplished astronomer and scientist. He worked in the court of the Kangxi Emperor, a job he got by winning an astronomy contest against a Chinese astronomer. Winner got the job, loser was to be cut into pieces while still alive. Luckily for the loser, the sentence was commuted to exile, and Verbiest and the Emperor eventually became close friends, and I imagine would throw back some wine and laugh about the time the Emperor almost had old Ferdie diced.

In addition to fixing calendars and designing astronomical instruments and cannon, Verbiest seems to have used his resources of some of the best fabricators in China (and likely the world) to build an interesting little diversion for the Emperor all the way back in 1672: a smallish (about 2 ft long) five-wheeled cart-like machine that had the then wildly-unique ability of self-motility.

The cart used a very simple sort of steam turbine, a mild evolution of such other early steam turbines as Hero's aeliopile steam engine (I've speculated about its use in a car a while ago). The turbine in Verbiest's car was an open turbine, which is essentially a waterwheel for steam. A water-filled vessel with a nozzle pointing at the bladed wheel is heated over a small brazier, and the steam shoots from the nozzle to the wheel's vanes, causing it to rotate, and, in the case of a horizontal wheel, that rotational motion is translated 90° through a differential-like gear system, and then on to the wheels.


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