Nicolas Joseph Cugnot’s Steam Tractor

Born in 1725, Nicolas Cugnot, a French artillery officer, was the world’s first motorist. Having worked out a method of running a self propelled vehicle under steam power, he was excited to find that the French military had expressed interest in his invention. Success was close at hand. But within minutes of starting he had the world’s first motoring accident. And soon after, he became the world’s first convicted dangerous driver.

© Richard Owen

His 3-wheel vehicle appeared in 1769. A steam driven, two cylinder engine drove the front wheel, and Cugnot said his contraption would carry four people at a speed of just under 2 mph. But the weight of the huge copper boiler on the front of the carriage made it almost impossible to steer. On its maiden voyage the machine ran into and demolished a stone wall.

 Undismayed, Cugnot spent the next year building a larger version as a gun carriage for the French war ministry. He demonstrated the new machine on a Paris street. The military observers were impressed, particularly as Cugnot promised that it could carry 5 tons.

But the steering again let him down, and as he tried to turn a corner, the carriage overturned. The ministry lost interest and Cugnot lost his freedom - magistrates sent him to jail and impounded his machine. By the time he was able to think of modifications, France was in the grip of revolution. He moved to Brussels, where he died in 1804. Cugnot’s ill-fated gun carriage was later rebuilt and remains his only monument - in the Paris Conservatoires des Arts.