In response to my post about how the Nazis tried to write Austrian inventor Siegfried Marcus (who was Jewish) out of history by ordering German encyclopedia publishers to replace Marcus’ name and credit Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz as the inventors of the automobile, some of our readers felt that I was unfairly diminishing Daimler and Benz’s contributions to automotive history. My point that in pre-1938 Austria Marcus was considered the inventor of the gasoline powered automobile was dismissed as the result of Austrian chauvinism – as if Germans haven’t been eager to accord their own countrymen the same honor.
How to resolve the matter? Well, since there was a documented attempt to rewrite history in 1940, we’d have to look at what the historical record said before 1940. Fortunately, the world’s biggest public automotive history archive is about 20 minutes from where I’m sitting now, and while some of the early automotive histories in their collection credited Daimler or Benz, the oldest source they have, dating to 1912, says that Daimler’s contribution was even by then overstated and that author made a point of crediting Marcus with making the first gasoline powered auto.
First off, it’s obvious that Benz made and sold the first practical motorcar and that Marcus regarded it as an intellectual curiosity, not an invention with practical use. However, the fact remains that what we now know says that Marcus powered a four wheeled vehicle with a gasoline fired internal combustion engine at least a decade and a half before Daimler made his motorcycle and Benz his own three wheeler. What we know today, however, isn’t as important to the topic as what was known or thought about the origins of the motorcar before the Nazis tried to diminish Marcus’ role.
To see what early automotive historians had to say about the relative roles that early automotive pioneers had in the history of the car, to get a perspective on the pre-WWII draft of automotive history, I visited the National Automotive History Collection, which is housed at the Detroit Public Library’s Skillman branch in downtown Detroit. If you’re a car enthusiast and you find yourself in the Detroit area, I cannot urge you strongly enough to visit the NAHC, which has everything from the minutes of the boards of directors of long dead car companies to service manuals for just about every automobile that’s every been made. The NAHC doesn’t just have musty old Chilton’s books, it also has a sufficient budget for new acquisitions. If there’s a book about cars, there’s a good chance the NAHC will have it in their collection.
The NAHC has a dedicated reference librarian who is very helpful with research requests and she managed to find three histories of the automobile that were published before 1940. Well, two of them actually. The third was published in early 1941, not likely to have been affected by what publishers in Germany had only recently done (the Reich’s Ministry for Propaganda issued it’s directive in mid 1940) and we’ll start with that first, going in reverse chronological order.
The Automobile Industry: The Coming of Age of Capitalism’s Favorite Child, by E.D. Kennedy, was published in January, 1941 by Reynal & Hitchcock in New York. Therein Kennedy makes the simple assertion that, “the world’s first automobile was a German automobile which Benz had completed in 1886.”
Going back to 1917, the A. J. Munson company of Chicago published The Story of the Automobile, Its History and Development from 1760 to 1917. Munson includes many early developments going back to Cugnot and various steam powered vehicles, but like Kennedy he fails to mention Marcus. Also, like Kennedy, he credits Benz. In the book’s index, the entry under Benz reads “builder of first internal combustion road vehicle” and in the text of the work Munson says, “…in 1885, Benz, a German, built the first road vehicle to run by the internal combustion, hydro-carbon motor”.
Now that would seem to settle things, but perhaps due to geography, or possibly spelling, American automotive historians may not have been aware of the role that Marcus played.
The oldest history of the automobile that the NAHC has in its collection is Motor-Cars and their Story, by Frederick A. Talbot, published in London in 1912 by Cassell and Company, Ltd. Unlike the the authors writing later, Talbot seems to go out of his way to credit Marcus, or as he spelled it Siegfried Markus, almost from the outset. In the front of the book, the list of illustrations describes one plate as “The Siegfried Markus motor-car completed in 1875, and said to be the first petrol-driven car” and the caption for that illustration goes on to say, “This is claimed to be the first petrol motor-car: it was completed by Siegfried Markus in 1875”. In the index, under Siegfried Markus it simply says, “Inventor of the automobile, 13”.
Now it must be said that we know today that Talbot got some facts wrong. To begin with, the vehicle shown in the photograph supplied by the Automobile Club of Vienna that owned it, was the second motorcar that Marcus built, and it was likely built closer to the time that Benz and Daimler were working on their first vehicle. We also know that the 1875 date is likely too late for Marcus’ first “car”, which is shown in a photograph dated 1870 and may actually have run even earlier, in the mid 1860s.
As with what we know today, the issue isn’t whether Talbot got his timeline correctly, it’s what early automotive historians felt about Marcus’ role and Talbot clearly thought that role was highly significant. From page 13 of his book:
“Who invented the automobile? This question has provoked considerable diversity of opinion. Each country would appear to bestow the wreath upon its native claimant. Thus in Germany Gottlieb Daimler secures the honour, Selden in the united States, and so on. One above all, however, would appear to be entitled to the distinction, if it should be awarded, inasmuch as he drove a petrol-driven car in Vienna in 1875. It was a four-wheeled vehicle, with the mechanism placed centrally and driven by belting over a large pulley mounted on the back axle, with front-wheel steering controlled from a pillar and hand-wheel.”
Again, Talbot seems to be describing the second Marcus car, which was much closer to late 19th and early 20th century motorcars than the primitive cart with a motor that he prior built. However, he clearly credits Marcus “above all” with being the first. Almost as if to prove his point about nationalism affecting the historical record, Talbot devotes a significant amount of ink to the story of the UK’s Edward Butler and his 1883 “tri-car” and then goes on to say, “it has been stated that Daimler produced, in 1886, the first practical petrol motor-car, but this face seems scarcely reconcilable, as I have already shown. While Daimler’s work was of far-reaching value, there is a tendency to overrate it.”
Talbot’s comments about Marcus carry a lot of wisdom about who invented the car and if that distinction really should be awarded. As I said in my original post, there are so many contributors to the idea of the automobile that it’s hard to credit a single individual. Undoubtedly Benz and Daimler were two of the earliest contributors to that idea. However, as you can see from 1912’s Motor-Cars and their Story, at least one early automotive historian, based outside of Austria, felt that Marcus deserved more credit than the German pair for originating the gasoline powered automobile.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS