Note: Our colleagues at Jalopnik published a post about Canadian inventor Henry Seth Taylor’s 1867 Steam Buggy and whether he should be credited with inventing the automobile. Taylor and his invention certainly deserve mention in the history of the automobile, but there is a historical record that three years before Taylor’s steam powered Buggy hit the road another inventor, Siegfried Marcus, had already powered a vehicle with gasoline. This post about Marcus was originally published in a slightly different version at Cars In Depth.
With something as evolutionary as the automobile, it might be a fool’s errand to try and determine just who “invented” the car as we know it. Should we date and credit the automobile to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur steam wagon of 1770, or should the timeline start with something more practical, more similar to the modern automobile?
You have to start somewhere and most modern histories of the car credit Gotlieb Daimler and Carl Benz as being the auto’s inventors, with Benz’s Patent Motor Wagen usually cited as the first automobile, though as we shall see, that wasn’t always the case. Benz’s three-wheeler is considered to be so historically significant that even the replica Patent Wagens made by John Bentley Engineering in the UK from 1986-97 now fetch high five-figure prices at auction and many are in the collections of some of the finest automotive museums in the world including Mercedes-Benz’s own museum. It’s true that the Benz trike was the first practical automobile, and certainly was the first motorcar that went into production and was sold, but while Benz and Daimler’s achievements were indisputable, it’s likely that the honor of being considered the automobile’s inventor was given to those German engineers after being stolen by the Nazis from Siegfried Marcus. Marcus was an engineer and prolific inventor who lived and worked in Vienna and made a four wheel vehicle with a gasoline powered engine decades before Benz and Daimler made their motorcars.
It’s not surprising that neo-Nazis like to call themselves “historical revisionists”. The original Nazis were already rewriting history before the start of hostilities in World War II. Marcus, as mentioned, was a fecund inventor, with 131 patents granted to him in a number of countries. Most of his research was in the area of scientific instruments, electricity, lighting, telegraphs and ignition. An early technical and commercial success of Marcus’ was inventing a magneto powered igniter for explosives, a t-handled plunger device familiar from western and mining movies. Sales of his inventions funded further research. In the 1860s, Marcus became interested in fuel engines and realized that if liquid fuel was going to be used, it would have to be aerosolized, atomized and mixed with air. Based on one of his earlier fuel fired inventions, Marcus developed what was quite possibly the first carburetor. First working on atmospheric engines and later on combustion engines, no later than in 1870 Marcus mounted a benzene fueled two-stroke combustion engine on a four wheeled cart. Some sources say Marcus’ first motorcar was assembled as early as 1864, three years before Canadian inventor Henry Seth Taylor’s Steam Buggy and more than 20 years before the Benz Patent Wagen.
There is a photograph of the first Marcus motorcar dated 1870 and signed by Siegfried Marcus. A number of reliable contemporary accounts describe Marcus “driving” his vehicle on and around Mariahilfer Strasse, the street in Vienna where he had his workshop. I said “driving” because the first Marcus motorcar had no clutch, used the rear wheels as flywheels for the vertically mounted engine, and could not be controlled very well due to the absence of any brakes or steering. Oh, and no seats either.
No, it was not as practical as the Benz Patent Wagen, but as a proof of concept today it’s considered to be the first gasoline powered combustion engine driven vehicle. Based on the 1864 date inscribed into the Vienna memorial to Marcus, his motorcar ran 22 years before Benz’s Patent Wagen and Daimler’s Reitwagen rolled out of their workshops, and more than 30 years before Henry Ford first drove his own Quadricycle down Bagley Ave. in Detroit.
Benz and Daimler, like Henry Ford and other automotive pioneers, saw a business opportunity. Marcus already had a thriving business so to him the motorcar was more of an intellectual pursuit and he never tried to manufacture or sell his motorcars, though he did, like David Buick, Henry Leland and the Dodge Brothers, sell engines for stationary and marine applications.
In the late 1880s, about the same time that Benz was developing the Patent Wagen, Marcus built a second motorcar, this one much more sophisticated than the first Marcus motorcar and in a number of ways closer to a modern car than Benz’s three wheeler. To begin with, it had four wheels, but it also had magneto powered electric ignition. Spark ignition would not become standard in automotive engines for at least 15 more years.
If the second Marcus car ever ran, it didn’t run particularly well. An exact replica was made not long ago and it was found to just barely have enough horsepower to move under it’s own motive force.
Still, before WWII, Marcus was known, certainly in the Austrian and German technical and automotive communities, as the father of the automobile. There was a statue of Marcus erected in Vienna’s Karlsplatz, and a memorial plaque to him stood at the entrance of the Technical University there. Further evidence of his role in automotive history can be seen from the famous Selden patent case. A number of automakers challenged George Selden’s 1877 U.S. patent on a horseless carriage, after Selden tried to use that patent to monopolize the auto industry, or at least extract royalties from other manufacturers. Daimler’s American branch hired Ludwig Czischek, the secretary of the Austrian Automobile Club, to document the history of the Marcus motorcars, in the hope that the second Marcus car predated Selden’s patent. That turned out not to be the case, but it does show that Marcus and his motorcars were known in the automotive industries in both Europe and the United States. Czischek’s research, which has resurfaced in modern times, has cleared up some uncertainties about the Marcus car’s, particularly just when the second car was made. For a while, because of some inaccurate dating, some thought that the second Marcus car was made in the late 1870s, about a decade earlier than when it was actually fabricated. Now we know that the second Marcus car was indeed made after Daimler and Benz made their first motor vehicles. While that may earn Benz and Daimler honors for the first practical cars, it takes nothing away from the significant achievement Marcus made with his primitive first motorcar in 1870. That achievement was acknowledged. For forty years after his death in 1898, Austrian schoolchildren were taught that Marcus was the inventor of the motorcar.
Then came the Auschluss, the unification of Austria and Germany under Nazi rule in 1938. The statue of Marcus was torn down, the memorial plaque ripped off the engineering college’s wall. The automobile, the autobahns and the Volkswagen, were important aspects of the Third Reich’s policies. In that light it would not do to have a Jew as the inventor of the automobile. So history was rewritten.
In July of 1940, the Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, sent a letter to the directors of 1Daimler-Benz-A.G. in Stuttgart. The propaganda ministry told Daimler-Benz management that the publishers of Germany’s two most important encyclopedias, the Meyers Lexikon and the Grosse Brockhaus, had been directed to remove the name of Siegfried Marcus and replace it with that of Gottlieb Damiler and Carl Benz as the inventors of the automobile. The use of the phrase “German engineers” made it clear to the publishers why Marcus’ name was to be excised.
2Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda
Business signs. S 1 8100/188.8.131.52/7
Berlin W8, 4 July 1940
To the management of Daimler-Benz A.G. Stuttgart-Untertürkheim
Subject: true inventor of the automobile
In your letter dated 30 May 1940 Dr.Wo / Fa.
The Bibliographic Institute and the publisher F.A. Brockhaus have been advised that in future Meyers Lexikon, and the Great Brockhaus are not called to Siegfried Marcus, but the two German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz as the creator of the modern automobile.
In order signed by Dr. Eckmann
Siegfried Marcus was literally written out of history. Nazi propagandists and German publishers were not the only ones to do so. Early instruction manuals published by Germany’s Bosch electrical component company credited Marcus with inventing the magneto, not Robert Bosch, but at some point prior to World War Two, that credit was removed from Bosch company literature.
Thanks to the efforts of good people, though, efforts have been made to successfully restore Siegfried Marcus’ rightful role in automotive history. His statue and memorial plaque in Vienna have been restored. The museum in his hometown of Malchin, Germany has extensive displays about Marcus, with a replica of the first Marcus motorcar. Students at Vienna’s Technical School for Automotive Technology also built a replica of the two stroke engine used on that first motorcar. Vienna’s Technical Museum houses a replica of the second Marcus motorcar.
Unlike the replicas of his first motorcar and its engine, which were based on photographs and Marcus’ own sketches, a replica of the second Marcus motorcar was based on the original, in the collection of the Austrian Automobile Club. The 2nd Marcus car was built, to Marcus’ specifications, by the Märky, Bromovsky & Schulz Company of Vienna, which apparently retained rights to the car. In 1898 it was part of a public exhibition about early motorcars and then sold to the automobile club. By 1938 ownership changed hand to Vienna’s Technical Museum. Fortunately for automotive history, the museum relegated the Marcus car to a storage room where it was safe from the Nazis, who surely would have destroyed it when they destroyed the memorials to Marcus. After the war, the car was returned to the Austrian Automobile Club and the memorials were rebuilt.
Restoring Marcus’ role in history won’t be quite so easy as restoring a statue or conserving an antique motorcar. The notion of Benz and Daimler as inventors of the automobile has become entrenched as common knowledge. Still, Marcus has slowly been getting his due. In 1948, his remains were re-interred in an honorary tomb in Simmering’s central cemetary. His bust, removed by the Nazis, was restored to its original stand in the Resselpark, in front of the Technical University, and another memorial bust was erected at the mechanic’s institute. A street in Vienna’s 14th district was also named for Marcus. In all there are now a half dozen memorials to Siegfried Marcus in and around Vienna.
It’s important to point out that much of the work done to restore the legacy of Siegfried Marcus was done by Austrians and Germans, eager to right the crimes against history by the Third Reich. There are German language web sites devoted to Marcus, his life and his inventions. As mentioned, his German hometown honors him with a display in the local historical museum and his second motorcar is a treasured part of the Austrian Automobile Club’s collection of historical cars.
The historical record and Marcus’ role in it is also slowly being restored. Most modern comprehensive histories of the automobile that go back to Cugnot’s steam wagons now indeed give a nod to Marcus. Those that don’t call him the father of the motorcar do say he had an important role in its development. It’s now generally accepted, with reliable certainty, that Siegfried Marcus was the first person in history to drive a four wheeled vehicle with a gasoline engine.
Otto and Diesel might have invented engines. Benz and Daimler might have sold the first (sort of) practical motor vehicles. Frederick Lanchester, Harry Ricardo, Henry Royce, David Buick and Henry Leland might have made them powerful and reliable machines (well, by the standards of the day). None of their inventiveness and industriousness would have meant much, though, without Marcus’ first motorcar. To be sure, if Marcus hadn’t done it first, someone else would have, and going back to Cugnot and earlier, the basic concept of powered motion is ancient, but as far as we can determine from the historical record, Marcus was indeed the first person to put a gasoline motor on a four wheeled vehicle.
Almost all early combustion engine development and sales was targeted at existing steam engine applications. Before Buick, Ricardo, Leland and the Dodge brothers sold motors for cars, they sold marine engines for boats and stationary engines to run pumps, farm equipment and machine shops. So did Marcus. Perhaps putting that primitive two stroke engine on a cart wasn’t quite as obvious an idea as it seems a century and a half later. Someone had to be the first to do it, and that person was Siegfried Marcus. You can call him the inventor of the car if you want, or save that honor for Carl and Gotlieb. Honoring Benz and Daimler, though, carries with it the undeniable fact that you’d be helping some very, very bad people rewrite history. On the other hand, if you remember the name Siegfried Marcus and what he accomplished you’ll be helping to keep the historical record as history actually happened.
1. It’s not clear from the propaganda ministry’s letter just what was in Daimler-Benz’s original letter of 30 May, 1940. One can assume that Daimler-Benz was eager to call their founders the inventors of the automobile. I don’t know if the automaker was also bringing Marcus’ Jewish ancestry to the knowledge of the Nazis or not, but that referenced letter does raise some questions. When the bulk of this material was first published in 2011, I sent a request to the Daimler historical archives to see if they have a copy or even a record of the May 1940 letter that Daimler-Benz initially sent to the German government. that resulted in Siegfried Marcus getting almost erased from automotive history.
Berlin W8, den 4. Juli 1940
An die Direktion der Daimler-Benz-A.G. Stuttgart-Untertürkheim
Betrifft: Eigentlichen Erfinder des Automobils
Auf Ihr Schreiben vom 30. Mai 1940 Dr.Wo/Fa.
Das Bibliographische Institut und der Verlag F.A. Brockhaus sind darauf hingewiesen worden, dass in Meyers Konversations Lexikon und im Großen Brockhaus künftig nicht Siegfried Marcus, sondern die beiden deutschen Ingenieure Gottlieb Daimler und Carl Benz als Schöpfer des modernen Kraftwagens zu bezeichnen sind.
Im Auftrag gez. Dr. Eckmann