The machine that changed the world

The Machine that Changed the World. This was the sub-title that Barry Yates chose for his talk given at the February Todmorden U3A meeting. It could describe a number of items but Barrie was referring to the almost ubiquitous motor car. Barrie himself is an engineer with experience of working in many different fields and countries. There is probably little that he doesn’t know of the subject.

He started by displaying a picture of a Sumerian cart circa 3,000 BCE, pointing out that the basic shape of the motor car remains the same. Apart from improvements to the interiors and the suspension of the horse-drawn coach, the next significant development was the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century.

There was no prospect of steam driven vehicles until Richard Trevithick designed the first high-pressure steam engine, enabling them to be much reduced in size. Barrie told his audience that a number of discrete developments were needed to take place before the final advance to the petrol-driven internal combustion engine was made.

The first of these was, Alessandro Volta, investigating gases, ignited marsh gas with an electric spark, paving the way for the spark plug. Giovanni Venturi determined that when a fluid flows through a tube that narrows to a smaller diameter, the partial restriction causes a higher pressure. This principle was later used to develop the carburettor. Some others included the building by François de Rivaz of an internal combustion engine powered by a hydrogen and oxygen mixture, and ignited by electric spark. In 1860, Etienne Lenoir produced the first internal combustion engine, which was gas-fired. Two years later, Nikolaus Otto was the first to build and sell such engines. In the 1870s, Otto worked with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach to develop a 4-stroke gas engine and meanwhile Karl Benz worked on a 2-stroke then a 4-stroke engine, patented in 1886 which was used to power the first cars in production.

In 1884 Edward Butler constructed the first petrol internal combustion engine. Butler invented the spark plug, ignition magneto, coil ignition and spray jet carburettor, and was the first to use the word petrol. A year later, Benz built the Motorwago, the first car to have a petrol engine. It was much lighter than the steam engine and was faster.

In the beginning, cars were very much a rich man’s toy, and were custom built. Moreover, they were not built by a single concern. A coach builder would construct the body, while the engine would be built elsewhere. Production-line manufacturing of more affordable cars was started by Ransom Olds in 1902. His Oldsmobile factory was based upon the assembly line techniques pioneered by Marc Isambard Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom) at the Portsmouth Block Mills in 1802. Henry Ford took up and developed this to produce the famous Model T Ford. 20 millions of these cars were produced. A figure exceeded by only one other model of car. You’ve guessed it! The VW Beetle.

General Motors under Alfred Sloan became the biggest motor manufacturer in the world. Sloane developed a range of models which had the same chassis, starting with basic model and the cheapest – the Chevrolet. Owners could then upgrade as their income grew, to Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick; culminating in the Cadillac. Production costs were minimised and buyers were encouraged to stay with GM.

Britain has an illustrious history in motor manufacture at all levels. The most prominent names associated with the mass market are Herbert Austin and William Morris. It was the latter who pioneered Ford’s mass production methods in this country and the famous Morris Minor can still be seen on our roads as well as those of other countries, notably India.

Barrie brought his talk up to date by commenting on the implications of depleting oil reserves and climate change. In his opinion, until our public transport is improved to the degree that many can dispense with car use, hybrid vehicles are the best choice of car for those who wish to keep their emissions as low as possible. Membership Secretary Margaret Gunnill gave the vote of thanks for a well-received talk and presented Barrie with the customary book token.

Report by John Bouttell