VOL. 9 March ISSUE YEAR 2008

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 9 - March Issue - Year 2008
A Steam Wagon
An engraving showing Cugnot after crashing into a stone wall.

An engraving showing Cugnot after crashing into a stone wall.

Nicolas Cugnot's "Fardier

Nicolas Cugnot's "Fardier

As she was used to doing every evening before dinner, the elderly lady worked her way through the rows of vegetables on the small patch of land behind her home, running her fingers over every leaf of spinach to check for insects, caressing each tomato and pulling out even the smallest weed which had appeared during the day.  Her bones cracked as she rose from the low wooden stool. She used a dipper to fling water into the far corners of the garden, her arm describing wide, sweeping arcs. From beyond the high stone wall which isolated her from the outside world, she could hear the bustle of the crowd and the constant clatter of horses. And then the sky seemed to fall on her head, as the wall exploded and stones whizzed by her face. Speechless with shock, she stood and gaped at the large hole which had appeared in the wall.


Nicolas Cugnot was a French military engineer born in 1725. He is credited with inventing and building the first self-propelled vehicle capable of transporting persons and heavy loads, a precursor to our modern automobile. His invention was called fardier à vapeur, or steam wagon. It was originally designed as an artillery tractor, although Cugnot later included the possibility of transporting up to four passengers.

The machine was a dray, a low cart or wagon without permanent sides. It had a tricycle layout with two iron-rimmed wheels in the back and the single front wheel steered by a tiller. The boiler was mounted out in front and the engine, consisting of two 33-centimeter, fifty-liter pistons connected by a rocking beam, was mounted over the front wheel. This design made the vehicle dangerously unbalanced and inherently unstable, especially since the front wheel had to provide both drive and steering capability. Cugnot devised a mechanism to convert the reciprocating (back and forth) motion of the engine to the rotary motion needed to make the wheel turn. His first model was successfully tested in 1770 and could haul four tons at a top speed of about four km/hour, although it could operate only twelve or fifteen minutes before running out of steam and forcing the driver to stop in order to fire up the furnace and add water to the boiler. The machine weighed about 2.5 tons and could carry no reserves of water or fuel.

Despite these serious limitations, the French Ministry of War encouraged Cugnot to continue his work, even offering to close off a main road in Paris in order to test the machine in secret. Cugnot’s second model was larger, faster and more powerful. It was tested in July 1771 and proved to have excellent haulage capabilities. Unfortunately, its unstable design, unchanged from the previous model, forced Cugnot to lose control during the run. He crashed into a stone wall and seriously damaged both his vehicle and the wall. The French inventor thus earned the dubious distinction of causing the world’s first automobile accident.

Subsequent budgetary problems and the French Revolution of 1789 forced Cugnot to abandon his project and to lose the pension which King Louis XV had granted him. He fled in exile to Brussels, where he lived in poverty. He was invited back to France by Napoleon and his pension was restored shortly before his death in 1804.

His second steam wagon survived the Revolution and is now on display in the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris.

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN
& Sales Manager, Pometon Abrasives

Author: Giovanni Gregorat