It was the early morning hours of June 4, 1896. The Henry Ford Quadricycle was finally completed and ready to roll out for a test drive. There was just one problem. The 500-pound metal frame fitted with four bicycle wheels and powered by a two-cylinder, four-horsepower gasoline engine, was too wide to fit through the shed door. Not to be stopped by a small detail, Henry Ford took a sledgehammer to the door jam and brick wall. His first Quadricycle launched on its test drive around Detroit.
Henry Ford was working for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. He was on call 24 hours a day to ensure that Detroit had continual electrical service. When Ford was promoted to Chief Engineer, he had more flexibility to spend time in the shed-turned-shop behind his house on 58 Bagley Street in Detroit.
With every spare hour, Ford worked on his dream project, a gasoline-powered “horseless carriage.” An article he read about the Kane-Pennington design gasoline engine described in American Machinist Magazine, November 7, 1895 reportedly inspired the Ford Quadricycle. He spent the better part of two years on the project, along with his mentor Charles Brady King, his chief assistant James Bishop and other colleagues.
According to MyAutoWorld.com,
“Ford employed the help of his friends in the Detroit engineering community to build an internal combustion engine on his kitchen table. It’s important to note to what extent Ford was a visionary and an organizer. He was an engineer, of course, but he didn’t by any means accomplish his engineering feats alone.”
The Ford Quadricycle is often credited as the first automobile ever to drive on the streets of Detroit. That “first” belonged to his mentor and friend, Charles Brady King.
On March 6, 1896, King toured his gasoline-powered automobile through Detroit in front of hundreds of spectators at a raging speed of approximately seven miles per hour. In an article appearing the next day in the Detroit Free Press:
“The first horseless carriage seen in this city was out on the streets last night. It is the invention of Charles B. King, a Detroiter, and its progress up down Woodward Avenue about 11 o’clock caused a deal of comment, people crowding around it so that its progress was impeded. The apparatus seemed to work all right, and went at the rate of five or six miles an hour at an even rate of speed.”
King’s ride was a full ten years after Karl and Bertha Benz produced the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1885. Their invention is widely regarded as the world’s first automobile propelled by an internal combustion engine. Many inventors were focusing on vehicles for personal use including tricycles, wagons, motor-bicycles and quadricycles.
King lacked the resources and business know-how to refine his experimental vehicle into a production car. But he mentored the Henry Ford Quadricycle, a lighter, faster vehicle for personal use.
With the doorway “tailored” the dimensions of the Ford Quadricycle, the now famous ride down Grand River Avenue began. James Bishop bicycled ahead to warn pedestrians of the oncoming racing vehicle. The Ford Quadricycle had no breaks, minimal steering ability and two gears. First gear reached 10 mph and second reached 20 mph, although Ford had trouble getting into second.
Henry Ford was not the first person to design or build an automobile. His Quadricycle was only one step in the larger progression. But he was a man with vision and brilliant business acumen. As with so many innovations of the Industrial Era, luxuries once reserved for the few became accessible to the masses. Among them, Henry Ford made the automobile affordable by refining the assembly line concept.
To set the use of the gas engine in context, the world was already well aware of the pollution it caused in cities. In 1875, coke made from coal replaced charcoal as the primary fuel for making steel. By the 1880s, coal was used to generate electricity for homes as well as factories.
Nikola Tesla had long envisioned renewable, clean energy sources.
In “Our Future Motive Power” published in Everyday Science and Mechanics, December 1931, Tesla said:
“The thermo-dynamic process is wasteful and barbarous, especially when burning coal…”
While he felt that oil and natural gas were superior to coal as fuel sources, all were limited.
“So great has been the drain on them of late years that the specter of exhaustion is looming up threateningly in the distance, and everywhere the minds of engineers and inventors are bent upon increasing the efficiency of known methods and discovering new sources of power.”
A stellar example was the result of Tesla’s work. On November 15th 1896 the City of Buffalo joined the power grid generated from Niagara Falls, approximately 26 miles away. Tesla had already carved the pathway to renewable electric power.
In his early years, Ford designed several electric cars and Thomas Edison was working on perfecting batteries for use in automobiles. But the gasoline engine won, a reality with global implications that plague us to this day.
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