Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road Carriage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Cugnot invented a vehicle powered by steam called the steam dray. This three-wheeled carriage, the first of the so-called “horseless carriages,” could pull up to four tons at a speed of two and one-half miles per hour.

Summary of Event

Before the advent of mechanical means of land transportation such as automobiles, the adage that “an army moves on its stomach” was doubly true: Commanders needed to worry about feeding not only their men but their horses and pack animals as well. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a child of farmers from the small village of Void, knew how much food domesticated animals could consume, and he conceived of a vehicle, powered by steam rather than animal locomotion, that could revolutionize warfare. The vehicle Cugnot conceived was a mere transport, not a tank or other mechanized weapon, but it was no less revolutionary on that account. [kw]Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road Carriage (Oct. 23, 1769) [kw]Carriage, Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road (Oct. 23, 1769) [kw]Road Carriage, Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered (Oct. 23, 1769) [kw]Steam-Powered Road Carriage, Cugnot Demonstrates His (Oct. 23, 1769) Carriages, steam-powered Vehicles Steam-powered vehicles[steam powered vehicles] [g]France;Oct. 23, 1769: Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road Carriage[1960] [c]Inventions;Oct. 23, 1769: Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road Carriage[1960] [c]Science and technology;Oct. 23, 1769: Cugnot Demonstrates His Steam-Powered Road Carriage[1960] Cugnot, Nicolas-Joseph Louis XV

As a child, Cugnot attended school in Void and then in nearby Toul, where he showed great talent in mathematics and physics. This skill led him to enroll, when he was sixteen, in the École Royale du Génie, Mézières a school of military engineering about one hundred miles west of Toul. After graduating, Cugnot entered the French army as an officer in the artillery corps. Sent to Vienna when the duke of Lorraine, Francis III, was crowned Emperor Francis I of Austria, Cugnot benefited greatly by his introduction to the German-speaking world. While on post, Cugnot read Theatrum machinarum Theatrum machinarum (Cugnot) (1724) by German engineer Jakob Leupold, which described all the steam machines invented thus far. Introduced to the mechanical structure of steam engines, he was intrigued by the potential of such a novel source of power. Cugnot was later sent to Brussels, where he was assigned to fortification design. Wrestling with the mechanical problems involved in constructing artillery defenses and maximizing the effective use of cannon through flexible emplacement, Cugnot began to consider the possibility of using steam power to move immensely heavy weapons quickly to new positions.

In 1763, at the age of thirty-eight, Cugnot was discharged from the army. Awarded a six-hundred-franc annual pension in recognition of his invention of a new cavalry musket, he was secure from penury but certainly not wealthy. Taking advantage of his financial security, Cugnot immediately moved to Paris, where he began work on the design of a military vehicle powered by a steam machine. Machines;vehicles Needing more funds than his pension could supply, he contacted Général de Gribeauval, his superior officer in Vienna and now the inspector general of the French army. Impressed with the plans and smallscale prototype that Cugnot presented, Gribeaunal successfully guided Cugnot’s project through the mazes of royal bureaucracy, gaining the support of the Marquis de Monteynard, the minister of war, and the financial support of King Louis XV.

Cugnot’s first working prototype took almost six years to develop, making its debut before General Gribeauval and other high-ranking French officers in Paris on October 23, 1769. Called a fardier à vapeur Fardier à vapeur (steam-powered vehicle) by its inventor (and a “locomotive” by the English press that reported on it), the machine was not a complete success. Though it moved a short distance under its own power, it needed to stop frequently to allow more steam pressure to build inside the boiler. Nevertheless, the concept had proved to be workable, and Cugnot continued development.

On April 22, 1770, the fardier, which had become a “steam dray” in English, was presented officially to King Louis XV and his court. The improved version was able to move at a speed of about four kilometers (two and one-half miles) per hour. It had three wheels, one in the front, which was used for steering, and two in the back. The boiler and steam engine were positioned at the front of the machine; behind the narrow driver’s seat, a platform had been built on which to transport equipment. When demonstrated to the king, the smoking behemoth carried the incredible weight of four tons of equipment. Still, the problems of maintaining steam had not been satisfactorily resolved.

The fardier needed to stop every ten to twelve minutes to build up enough steam pressure to continue. Worse, it lacked any efficient way to replenish the boiler’s supply of water, requiring a difficult and time-consuming process for resupply. Safety was another concern; the machine lacked both a safety valve and a pressure gauge. In fact, during a later trial, the machine malfunctioned, hit a wall, and was destroyed in the first automobile accident in recorded history.

Even with its limitations, however, the fardier showed considerable promise. The development of more reliable and efficient steam engines would resolve many of it’s most pressing problems. Cugnot was awarded £22,000 to continue development, building a second model powered by an improved, two-cylinder steam engine. By mid-November, the new machine was ready for trial and performed admirably, pulling a two-and-one-half-ton payload from the military arsenal in the suburbs of Paris to Vincénnes at the respectable rate of two kilometers per hour. New trials were scheduled for the summer of 1771, but Cugnot’s supporters fell from power, replaced by conservatives who failed to see the potential of steam power. Cugnot’s invention was abandoned, his funding stopped, and his steam machine barely avoided destruction twice during the French Revolution in 1787 and 1797. Napoleon Bonaparte was apparently interested in renewing development, but Cugnot’s advancing age and Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt were obstacles that could not be overcome. Although Bonaparte granted Cugnot a pension of £4,000 per year, the project was never completed. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot died in Paris on October 2, 1804.


Cugnot was among the first engineers to recognize the great potential of self-powered vehicles. While the size and weight of steam engines made them impractical for personal use, their application to military transport seemed a realistic goal. Hampered mainly by the technical limitations of steam technology at the time, Cugnot was a pragmatic engineer who persevered in developing his fardier à vapeur into a workable machine. Although ultimately his project was ended by superiors who lacked his vision, his mechanical accomplishment stands as the pioneering work that foreshadowed the great revolutions in power and transportation of the nineteenth century. His dream became an everyday reality in the locomotives that ran on the world’s railways, the great steam tractors that transformed agriculture, and, as the twentieth century dawned, the steam-powered automobiles that competed (in many ways, successfully) with the internal combustion engine. Cugnot’s second fardier has survived and is presently on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burness, Tad. Ultimate Auto Album: An Illustrated History of the Automobile. Iola, Wis.: Krause, 2001. This is an excellent book that retraces the evolution of the automobile through time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eckermann, Erik, and Peter L. Albrecht. World History of the Automobile. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001. This book offers an extensive history the development of the automobile throughout the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutcliffe, Andrea. Steam: The Untold Story of America’s First Great Invention. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. This book traces the development of steam power and its transformational effects in the United States.

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Categories: History