Model Year 1825
Did an obscure Kentuckian drive the first automobile in 1825?
Model Year 1825
BY WILLIAM B. MEYER
The question “Where did it all start?” is always an irresistible, if slippery, one in matters of technology, and the more important and visible an invention, the greater the fascination in finding its origin or earliest use. In the case of the ever visible automobile, the argument can be made that it was an obscure Kentuckian, Dr. Joseph Buchanan, who, in the mid-1820s, built and drove the first in the United States. The case becomes more debatable the closer one looks, but it also becomes more interesting.
Throughout a relatively short life—he was born in 1785 and died in 1829—Buchanan epitomized the frontier intellectual, the jack-of-all-mental-trades, as much by inclination as from necessity. As an undersized, gifted, and combative child, he quickly absorbed all the learning available to him in frontier Kentucky. He qualified as a physician by studying medicine with a local practitioner. In his spare time Buchanan tinkered with a musical instrument that was to produce harmonies of color as well as sound in what he called “the music of light.” While in his twenties he served with distinction on the medical faculty of Kentucky’s new Transylvania University. He wrote a lengthy treatise on the mind-body problem, The Philosophy of Human Nature (1812), a materialist attack on the idea of the soul. In his final years he made his living as an editor, and he gave abuse as freely as he received it, supporting Kentucky’s Henry Clay against another frontier hero, Andrew Jackson.
That the doctor has, for all his gifts, slipped into obscurity is perhaps his own fault. He embodied the frontier spirit at its best and worst. Disdaining those who came before him, he was “so fond of originality,” a Kentucky historian wrote, “that he would not even condescend to write on any subject on which he had ever read anything.”
It is typical of the man that his most solid achievement came from the ruin of a grander project. In the early 1820s Buchanan produced an improved, lightweight “capillary steam engine” and immediately envisioned its use as the means to power a flying machine. Lacking funds, the doctor appealed to his fellow citizens for financial backing. He described a strange and wonderful future, when, weather permitting, “the citizens of Washington may attend dinner parties in Boston, and return home the same evening … and our merchants may visit Europe, transact their business and return home in a week.” Friendly editors reprinted the appeal. One predicted that “we shall soon see the carriages flying in every direction over our heads with the rapidity of eagles, cleaving the air.” Farther east another editor proposed that a few hundred of these “aerial vessels” be armored and sent to the aid of the Greek people, then fighting for their independence from Turkey.
Yet problems both technical and financial soon dragged Buchanan’s imagination back to earth. Surrendering the hope of aerial flight, he turned to the construction of a “steam carriage,” a wheeled vehicle driven by his lightweight engine. Early in 1825 the scheme met with success. The carriage, on a public trial, performed “beyond the most sanguine expectation of its ingenious inventor.” With his engine Buchanan propelled a “waggon” some three or four miles through the streets of Louisville “in the presence of an astonished throng of spectators.”
And there the story ends. Decades later the engine and the steam-driven carriage would still be remembered in Kentucky as “among the wonders of the day.” Having made his point, though, Buchanan went on to other things; and even the histories that follow American inventors down the same dead-end road of steam propulsion often leave out this early ride.
But if the episode is to be restored to the histories, what should they say about it? It is easy to deny any real connection between the steam carriage and the modern automobile. One can argue that the internal-combustion engine is the car’s true ancestor and dismiss all the steam carriages of the nineteenth century—dangerous, unwieldy, and impractical—as extinct fossils in the family tree of inventions.
Rejecting this attitude still does not guarantee pioneer status to the Kentuckian, even in the United States. By 1825, certainly, the invention and building of steam carriages was a common pastime in England. As for the New World, a case can also be made for the priority of the Philadelphia engineer Oliver Evans. In 1805 he built a steam dredge for use on the Schuylkill River, but to prove the point he first had the newly built craft driven, under its own power, through the streets from the workshop to the waterfront. Was it really an automobile? Nor is it difficult to suppose that some earlier Yankee mechanic more obscure than Buchanan may have built a working steam carriage and driven it down the road to historical oblivion. So the categories of the record book dissolve, but the inventor himself remains, undamaged, and so does some of the excitement of his audience, who as early as 1825 caught a fleeting if distorted glimpse of the everyday life of the future.
William B. Meyer wrote about the Hoosac Tunnel in the Fall 1985 issue.