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Steam-powered self-propelled vehicles large enough to transport people and cargo were first devised in the late 18th century. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot demonstrated his fardier à vapeur ("steam dray"), an experimental steam-driven artillery tractor, in 1770 and 1771. As Cugnot's design proved to be impractical, his invention was not developed in his native France. The centre of innovation shifted to Great Britain. By 1784, William Murdoch had built a working model of a steam carriage in Redruth, and in 1801 Richard Trevithick was running a full-sized vehicle on the road in Camborne. Such vehicles were in vogue for a time, and over the next decades such innovations as hand brakes, multi-speed transmissions, and better steering developed. Some were commercially successful in providing mass transit, until a backlash against these large speedy vehicles resulted in the passage of the Locomotive Act (1865), which required self-propelled vehicles on public roads in the United Kingdom to be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn. This effectively killed road auto development in the UK for most of the rest of the 19th century; inventors and engineers shifted their efforts to improvements in railway locomotives. (The law was not repealed until 1896, although the need for the red flag was removed in 1878.)
Among other efforts, in 1815, a professor at Prague Polytechnic, Josef Bozek, built an oil-fired steam car. Walter Hancock, builder and operator of London steam buses, in 1838 built a four-seat steam phaeton.:In 1867, Canadian jeweller Henry Seth Taylor demonstrated his 4-wheeled "steam buggy" at the Stanstead Fair in Stanstead, Quebec, and again the following year. The basis of the buggy, which he began building in 1865, was a high-wheeled carriage with bracing to support a two-cylinder steam engine mounted on the floor.What some people define as the first "real" automobile was produced by French Amédée Bollée in 1873, who built self-propelled steam road vehicles to transport groups of passengers.
The American George B. Selden filed for a patent on May 8, 1879. His application included not only the engine but its use in a 4-wheeled car. Selden filed a series of amendments to his application which stretched out the legal process, resulting in a delay of 16 years before the US 549160 was granted on November 5, 1895.
Karl Benz, the inventor of numerous car-related technologies, received a German patent in 1886.The four-stroke petrol (gasoline) internal combustion engine that constitutes the most prevalent form of modern automotive propulsion is a creation of Nikolaus Otto. The similar four-stroke diesel engine was invented by Rudolf Diesel. The hydrogen fuel cell, one of the technologies hailed as a replacement for gasoline as an energy source for cars, was discovered in principle by Christian Friedrich Schönbein in 1838. The battery electric car owes its beginnings to Ányos Jedlik, one of the inventors of the electric motor, and Gaston Planté, who invented the lead-acid battery in 1859.
The first carriage-sized automobile suitable for use on existing wagon roads in the United States was a steam powered vehicle invented in 1871, by Dr. J.W. Carhart, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in Racine, Wisconsin. It induced the State of Wisconsin in 1875, to offer a $10,000 award to the first to produce a practical substitute for the use of horses and other animals. They stipulated that the vehicle would have to maintain an average speed of more than five miles per hour over a 200 mile course. The offer led to the first city to city automobile race in the United States, starting on July 16, 1878, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and ending in Madison, via Appleton, Oshkosh, Waupun, Watertown, Fort Atkinson, and Janesville. While seven vehicles were registered, only two started to compete: the entries from Green Bay and Oshkosh. The vehicle from Green Bay was faster, but broke down before completing the race. The Oshkosh finished the 201 mile course in 33 hours and 27 minutes, and posted an average speed of six miles per hour. In 1879, the legislature awarded half the prize.Steam-powered automobiles continued development all the way into the early 20th century, but the dissemination of petrol engines as the motive power of choice in the late 19th century marked the end of steam automobiles except as curiosities. Whether they will ever be reborn in later technological eras remains to be seen. The 1950s saw interest in steam-turbine cars powered by small nuclear reactors (this was also true of aircraft), but the dangers inherent in nuclear fission technology soon killed these ideas. The need for global changes in energy sources and consumption to bring about sustainability and energy independence has led 21st century engineers to think once more about possibilities for steam use, if powered by modern energy sources controlled with computerized controls, such as advanced electric batteries, fuel cells, photovoltaics, biofuels, or others.