When car enthusiasts think of the development of the modern automobile we encounter the big names. Gottlieb Daimler is credited with a prototype of the modern engine. Karl Benz received the first patent for a gasoline fueled automobile. Wilhelm Maybach built the first four cylinder, four-stroke engine. Henry Ford adapted the assembly line to automobile construction.
Lost in the crowd of inventors and engineers is the Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir. Without Lenoir’s idea, the development of the modern car may have been delayed by several years. Of all the aspects of the automobile, his was the most instrumental of all.
Étienne Lenoir was born at Mussy-la-Ville, Belgium, January 12, 1822. He later taught himself chemistry and electrical engineering.
Étienne Lenoir worked as an engineer at Petiene et Cie. His experimentation with electricity directly led to his idea for a one-cylinder, two-stroke engine that was fueled by coal gas. The fuel-air mixture was ignited by a “jumping spark” from a battery and condensor coil. Étienne Lenoir patented his invention in 1860.
The primitive engine was inefficient, noisy, and overheated if there was not enough cooling water in the system, but it did run well enough to be considered practical.
Two years later Étienne Lenoir installed one of his engines in a rudimentary three wheeled carriage that looked more like a three wheeled farm wagon than anything else. The engine was a 2543 cc displacement 1-cylinder device powered by “liquid hydrocarbon” (petroleum distillate) injected by a primitive carburator. Lenoir called the vehicle the “Hippomobile”.
Étienne Lenoir demonstrated the Hippomobile on a round-trip journey of eleven kilometres from Paris to Joinville-le-Point. The trip took an excruciating hour-and-a-half to complete. The average adult human can walk the same distance in far less time. However, the trip was a milestone. The value of a hydrocarbon fueled internal combustion engine powered road vehicle had been demonstrated.
Not only had Étienne Lenoir invented a practical gasoline engine and constructed the first gasoline powered car, he is credited with inventing the spark plug. The “jumping spark” device is pretty much the same as the spark plugs used in the engine of your own vehicle, today.
Although Étienne Lenoir’s engine was too small to drive a road carriage, it was adapted to drive a boat. Later, hundreds were sold to power practical machinery like water pumps, woodworking lathes, and printing presses.
Within the next few decades other engineers, like Nikolaus Otto, improved and enlarged the basic design and function of internal combustion engines, making Étienne Lenoir’s engine obsolete.
Aside from the Hippomobile, the engine, and the spark plug, Étienne Lenoir was famous for his earlier electrical designs, including an improved telegraphy system. Despite his public fame and his many inventions, Étienne Lenoir died an impoverished man on August 4, 1900 at Varenne-St. Hilaire, France.