The history of the automobile actually began about 4,000 years ago when the first wheel was used for transportation in India. In the early 15th century the Portuguese arrived in China and the interaction of the two cultures led to a variety of new technologies, including the creation of a wheel that turned under its own power. By the 1600s small steam-powered engine models had been developed, but it was another century before a full-sized engine-powered vehicle was created.
In 1769 French Army officer Captain Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built what has been called the first automobile. Cugnot’s three-wheeled, steam-powered vehicle carried four persons. Designed to move artillery pieces, it had a top speed of a little more than 3.2 km/h (2 mph) and had to stop every 20 minutes to build up a fresh head of steam.
As early as 1801 successful but very heavy steam automobiles were introduced in England. Laws barred them from public roads and forced their owners to run them like trains on private tracks. In 1802 a steam-powered coach designed by British engineer Richard Trevithick journeyed more than 160 km (100 mi) from Cornwall to London. Steam power caught the attention of other vehicle builders. In 1804 American inventor Oliver Evans built a steam-powered vehicle in Chicago, Illinois. French engineer Onésiphore Pecqueur built one in 1828.
British inventor Walter Handcock built a series of steam carriages in the mid-1830s that were used for the first omnibus service in London. By the mid-1800s England had an extensive network of steam coach lines. Horse-drawn stagecoach companies and the new railroad companies pressured the British Parliament to approve heavy tolls on steam-powered road vehicles. The tolls quickly drove the steam coach operators out of business.
During the early 20th century steam cars were popular in the United States. Most famous was the Stanley Steamer, built by American twin brothers Freelan and Francis Stanley. A Stanley Steamer established a world land speed record in 1906 of 205.44 km/h (121.573 mph). Manufacturers produced about 125 models of steam-powered automobiles, including the Stanley, until 1932.