The History of Car Accessories and Features
Every time you drive a car, you’re engaging a complex system of features and gadgets that make driving an unbelievably comfortable and convenient method of transportation. However, early automobiles, which could have been considered motorized horse carriages, were not equipped with most of the features that we have grown accustomed to. While all of these tools and devices—from the radio to the rearview mirror—feel perfectly at home in our modern cars, early drivers wouldn’t have recognized most of our modern car accessories. While we take them for granted today, they have actually been invented and adopted over a period of more than 100 years. Here is a short history of some of the most prominent car features.
While several people were experimenting with ways to keep windshields clear during periods of precipitation, American businesswoman Mary Anderson is credited with the invention of the first successful windshield wipers. Her method, patented in 1903, consisted of a lever inside the vehicle’s cabin, a spring-loaded arm and a rubber blade. Another American inventor, Robert Kearns, later devised the intermittent windshield wiper system that we are familiar with today.
Today’s drivers can control the temperature of vehicle cabins down to the very degree, but drivers of the earliest cars couldn’t have dreamed of such a luxury. As early as 1917, however, carmakers realized that they could use the car’s exhaust
system to funnel heat into an enclosed cabin as a form of temperature control. About a decade later, the Ford motor company began installing actual heaters, including boiler-powered in-dash versions into their new cars. In the 1930s, General Motors pioneered the more modern type of heater that we still use today.
Radio became all the rage in the 1920s, soon after the first stations began broadcasting across the airwaves. Right away, many music-loving car owners began installing home radios in their cars. But these do-it-yourself solutions were replaced in the 1930s when the Galvin Manufacturing Corporation brought the first commercial car radio—known as the Motorola—to market. The company would later change its name to match that of its first car radio.
Drivers recognized the need to signal their intentions to turn and stop very early on in the history of cars. At first, drivers used hand signals to communicate and several mechanical solutions were proposed before the invention of the modern blinker by Oscar J. Simler in 1929. Turn signals went mainstream in the 1930s and 1940s as carmakers began offering them in larger numbers.
Of course, drivers have always had a need to steer their vehicles, but early carmakers simply adapted older methods of transportation and installed tillers in their vehicles. In 1894, however, a man named Alfred Vacheron participated in the French Paris–Rouen race driving a car equipped with a steering wheel. From that time, French automakers began implementing the new technology and it quickly spread across the globe.
Today’s cars are truly modern marvels, filled with technology and with features that make driving both comfortable and convenient. And, while it’s easy to think that these technologies have been around forever, they actually evolved as a series of incremental innovations, added to our cars over the course of a century. Recognizing this rich history can help us to appreciate our cars more and to develop a vision for where automotive technology may evolve in the future.