Nihil novi sub sole

In this age of obsession with carbon emissions it would seem that the engineers keep coming up with revolutionary new inventions improving the efficiency of cars. We have all heard of the hybrid and electric motors, superchargers, fuel injection, variable valve timing, fuel cells etc. While the objective of reducing fuel consumption is worthwhile you may be surprised to learn that the inventors of all these gadgets are no longer with us. And, no, they have not been assassinated by the eco activists mad keen to eradicate the combustion engine (as opposed to improving it). Most of them actually died of natural causes. Long time ago.

Fuel injection handles the delivery of gasoline into cylinders of a combustion engine. Its advantage over carburettors is in the accurate dosage which ensures optimum burn, improving both the power output and fuel consumption. Fuel injection was invented by Herbert Akroyd Stuart and first used in a practical engine in 1892. In 1920s fuel injection was in widespread use in commercial diesel engines.

But what about the variable valve timing, marketed in 1990s as a mechanical breakthrough? Well, while the first production car with VVT engine was Alfa Romeo Spider of 1980, the concept of tweaking the valve timing was first applied to steam engines in 1840s by none other than Robert Stephenson. The aircraft applications followed in 1920s.

Supercharger is a Dugald Clerk invention, first used in an engine in 1878. Gottlieb Daimler patented it in Germany in 1885. The centrifugal charger, conceptually identical to the units in common use today, was patented by Louis Renault in 1902. In 1908 a supercharged race car built by Lee Chadwick reached a speed of 160km/h.

But at least electric cars must be a modern invention, conceived to save the poor polar bears from sudden demise resulting from carbon emissions melting the Arctic ice? Again, no luck – the first electric cars appeared in 1880s and they were reasonably popular around the turn of the century. Hybrid gasoline-electric engine? First put in buses in 1901. A 1905 design by Henri Pieper (shown in the drawing below) had most of the features found in a modern Toyota Prius.

Pieper-patent-fig1

Ok, so some of the technical features of the currently used cars generally viewed as modern innovations are well over 100 years old. But, surely, the ideas which are yet to be commercialised must be new and original? For example this wet dream of the environmentalists – a hydrogen fuel cell car? To shatter this romantic notion I will clarify that, while put in a car only in 1959, hydrogen fuel cells were actually invented by William Grove in … 1839.

So, as you can see, the “modern” inventions aimed to make the cars more efficient are not that modern after all. Kudos to the inventors of the golden era of engineering who came up with most of the technology still used 150 years on.

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