The world’s first motoring accident

French artillery officer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, was one of the first to successfully employ a device for converting the reciprocating motion of the steam piston into a rotary motion of a ratchet arrangement. In other words, he was the world’s first motorist. But the firsts don’t quite stop there. Minutes after starting the vehicle, he had the world’s first motoring accident. Later, he would go on to become the world’s first convicted dangerous driver.

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Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot

A small version of his fardier à vapeur (steam dray/cart without sides) was introduced in 1769. A fardier was a massive horse-drawn cart with two wheels for transporting very heavy equipment like cannon barrels.

The fardier à vapeur was a three wheeled vehicle which was steam-driven, and contained a two-cylinder engine that drove the front wheel. Cugnot claimed that this prototype had the capacity of carrying four people at a speed of just less than 2mph.

The next year, a full-size version of the fardier à vapeur was built. This contraption was specified to be capable of carrying four tons and cover two lieues (7.8km or 4.8 miles) in one hour. However, this performance was never achieved in practice. The vehicle itself weighed over 2.7 tons tare (weight of an empty vehicle with no goods on it). There were two wheels at the rear and one in the front where the horses normally would’ve been.

The front wheel supported a huge copper steam boiler. The weight of the boiler on the front of the carriage was the main factor contributing to poor weight distribution, which made it almost impossible to steer the vehicle. This was a significant setback as the vehicle was intended to be able to traverse rough terrain and climb steep hills. On its maiden run, it is said to have gone out of control and ended up demolishing a part of the Arsenal stone walls. This was reported to be the first known automobile accident, although the earliest mention of this event was thirty years later, according to Georges Ageon.

Besides the weight distribution problems, the boiler performance was very poor, even by the standards of those times. The vehicle’s fire required constant relighting, and the steam was required to be raised every quarter of an hour or so, which considerably decreased the overall speed and distance.

Undeterred, Cugnot would spend the coming years modifying his prototype. He built a larger version as a gun carriage for the French War Ministry. He demonstrated the new machine in a Paris street. The military observers looked impressed.

But the steering let him down again. As he tried to turn a corner, the vehicle overturned. The project was abandoned.

The ministry lost interest. But Cugnot lost something dearer-freedom. Magistrates sent him to jail and confiscated the machine.

By the time he was able to come up with modifications, France was in the grip of the Revolution. The annual pension of 600 livres that King Louis XV granted him for his innovative work was withdrawn in 1789. He moved to Brussels and lived in poverty. The inventor would later be invited back to France by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, and Cugnot obliged. He returned to Paris, where he died on 2 October 1804.

His ill-fated gun carriage was later rebuilt and remains his only monument. It is now one of the proud displays of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts) in Paris.

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