Farm Collector Blogs > Looking Back

New Features for Cars in the Early 1900s

by Sam Moore

Tags: looking back, farm life, sam moore,

During the early 1900s, improvements to the then-fledgling motor car provided a fertile field for inventors. Many of their ideas became standard on later cars, some didn't, and some are considered today to be new innovations.

Under the heading, "A Wonderful Electrical Automobile Equipment," was the following account, written in 1908 (keep in mind that car lights at this time were fueled by acetylene gas and had to be lit with a match):

"The Witherbee Igniter Co. of New York has just finished the most complete electrical  installation ever put on an automobile.

"This electrical equipment consists of two Witherbee batteries connected in series, located under the rear seat of the machine. The batteries are charged by a dynamo situated under the front floor boards. A wood split pulley, attached to the shaft between the clutch and the gear box, together with a belt, drives the dynamo and an air compressor, which inflates the tires and operates the pneumatic jacks for raising the machine. In addition to the dynamo, there is a Wico charging device located on the running board, which enables the driver to charge the storage batteries from any electric light socket.

"The headlights are equipped with stereopticon incandescent lights, which can be turned off or on at will. The side and rear lights are fitted with small incandescents.

"By each of the side doors of the tonneau there is a lamp turned on automatically when either door is opened, lighting the way into the tonneau, where another lamp operates simultaneously by the same means, illuminating the interior.

"By raising the hood of the engine four lamps on either side of the motor are automatically turned on. There is also a lamp in the pan under the engine, and also lamps beneath the chassis which are turned on from the switchboard.

"On the dashboard are five lamps, illuminating the speedometer, ammeter, voltmeter, pressure gauge, oil feed drips and clock.

"Attached to each wheel rim is a device which indicates when the air pressure in the tires is below 60 pounds by sounding one of the electrical horns attached to the dash, while an indicator on the dash instantly locates the trouble. The same horn blows, and the same indicator operates, when any bearings are hot, the water in the radiator gets low, the oil in the oil box gets half empty, or when the gasoline gets down to five gallons.

"Putting on either the emergency or foot brakes blows an electric horn attached to the rear of the car, and drops a sign that reads "STOP." As soon as the brake is released, the horn stops and the sign disappears.

"There are four lights in the folding top which are turned on when desired. On each end of the rear seat, and on the back of the front seat, there is an electric cigar lighter. Near each of the wheels are extension lamps, for use about or under the chassis. In the rear of the car is an illuminated box with a celluloid front, through which the license number is visible.

"The signaling equipment consists of three Klaxon horns. A chain attached to the steering column operates these electric horns, and when all three are going, they can be heard for a mile distant. If the occupant of the tonneau wishes to speak to the driver, a special telephone transmitter is used, and an electric speaker horn on the dash proceeds to talk in a loud tone. If the driver wishes to say a few things to a teamster, it is not necessary to waste strength shouting. He simply speaks into his transmitter and the speaker horn on the fender repeats his words loud enough to be heard several blocks."

Quite a list of gadgets. Have you ever wished for a loudspeaker so you could "say a few things" to another driver? I have!

Another innovation was the cartograph:

"American automobilists will soon be crying for the Cartograph, an almost human invention, if it comes up to the claims made for it. Think of an attachment resembling the contrivance by which self-playing pianos are made to produce music. The cartograph, instead of being a perforated music roll, is a map of the roads to be traversed by the motor car, unrolling (on) a panel in front of the chauffer, so that he can tell at a glance where he is and which turning to take. The speed of the car governs the motion of the map, so that it always indicates – or should – the exact point where the traveler is. Moreover, the cartograph is provided with perforations just ahead of where the short turns and corners are, and these perforations ring a bell to warn the motorist in time. Even on the darkest night, it is claimed, a wholly unknown route can be covered without danger of being lost or ditched. The next logical step would be a contrivance to attach the cartograph to mechanical means of controlling the steering gear and levers so that the motorist can set it going and look for the machinery to do the rest."

Today we have GPS, which essentially does the same things claimed for the "cartograph" of 1907 – and even speaks to us as well.

Finally, from 1909:

"Something new was developed the other day during an automobile reliability run between San Antonio and Dallas, Texas. Among the entrants was D.A. Walker, president of the telephone company, in a big Rambler car carrying a portable telephone. By means of a long fishing pole with a hook at the end, Walker was able to ring up any point along the lines without getting out of his car. If a car broke down, the wire along the roadside was tapped and messages for relief were promptly sent. Points ahead were kept informed of the cars' progress and the usefulness of the plan was demonstrated many times."

Today the fishing pole has been dispensed with – which may not be such a good thing; at least with a pole the driver had to stop to talk on his phone.

Again, proof that there's nothing new under the sun.

New Features for Cars in the Early 1900s
Part of a Detroit Electric Appliance Company ad for their Deaco Dynamo (generator), which appeared in the December 28, 1911 issue of Motor Age.  (Magazine in the author’s collection)