“The Invader"

November 9, 1901


“The Invader"

Agriculture; Rural-Urban Contrast; Technology, Automobile; Transportation, Automobile; Women, Wives;

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In this cartoon, a farm couple looks with interest and concern, though not fear, at the “invader” on their country road:  a two-seat automobile.  At the turn of the twentieth century, there was much discussion whether the motorcar would, and whether it should, replace the horse as the predominate mode of transportation.  Several cartoons in Harper’s Weekly consider the humorous side of the competition between horse and horseless carriage, but the featured image hints at the potential disquiet and disruption that automobiles might bring to the countryside.  

In fact, over one-third of the leading automobile pioneers, including Henry Ford, had honed their mechanical skills by living or working on farms.  In addition, gasoline-powered vehicles, such as the tractor, were crucial to increasing farm productivity during the 1910s and 1920s.  In the short term, that higher productivity contributed to surpluses and lower prices for farmers, but, in the long run, helped make American farmers the most successful in the world.

The development and refinement of the steam engine in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century allowed the creation of the world’s first self-propelled vehicles:  steamboats and steam railroads.  In the 1860s, Sylvester Roper, an American mechanic and inventor, crafted a steam-powered road carriage, which was a forerunner of the automobile.  However, the motorcar would ultimately rely not on steam, but on the internal-combustion engine, which was developed in Europe during the third-quarter of the nineteenth century by Belgian, French, and German mechanic-inventors. 

Two of the important pioneers were Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, both of Germany.  Benz sold his first three-wheeled, one-cylinder vehicle in 1887, and introduced a four-wheel model in 1890.  Daimler hired talented engineers who made improvements to the internal-combustion engine, and in 1889 produced a four-speed motorcar.  In 1926, the firms of the Benz and Daimler merged to form Mercedes-Benz.

In the United States, other inventors followed Roper’s example to construct steam-powered road vehicles.  In 1891, William Morrison tested an electronic horseless carriage in Des Moines, Iowa, and in 1893, brothers Charles and Frank Duryea tested a gasoline-powered motorcar.  All of those vehicles were experimental and not manufactured for the public.  The development of an automobile industry had to wait until carriages designed to be pulled by horses were built strong enough to withstand the additional stress of the motorized vehicles.  However, most horse-carriage manufacturers had difficulty adjusting to the new demand, so the bicycle industry filled the void. 

The popularity of bicycling approached mania status in the 1890s, and it influenced the emergence of an automobile industry by emphasizing personal mobility and by providing adaptable types of mechanization:  cable brakes, gears, ball bearings, tubular design, pneumonic tires, and wire wheels.  The bicycle boom ended by the turn of the century, due in part to the rise of automobiles, but more bicycle companies transitioned successfully to automobile manufacturing than did horse-carriage companies.

In 1896, the Duryea brothers began manufacturing automobiles in Springfield, Massachusetts, with 13 gasoline-powered vehicles, but the company folded after a few years.  From the 1890s into the early years of the twentieth century, electric and steam motorcars far outpaced the production of those run on gasoline.  During the first decade of the twentieth century, though, gasoline motorcars rapidly became the popular favorite, and the electric motorcar’s limited range combined with the development in 1912 of a practical starter for the gasoline automobile resulted in the death of the electric car industry. 

The American Midwest became the manufacturing center of gasoline automobiles, following the advice of Ransom E. Olds to produce simple cars suitable for the general public.  In Michigan, Olds and other automobile pioneers were able to attract investors who were turning away from the state’s declining lumber and mining industries.  Detroit was a favorable location because it was already filled with bicycle and carriage manufacturers, and was close to iron, copper, water, and other natural resources.  It was in Detroit that Olds manufactured the first commercially successful automobile in the United States:  the one-cylinder, three-horsepower, curved-dashboard Oldsmobile.  Priced at $650, 425 Oldsmobile cars were sold in 1901 and 5,000 three years later; it remained the best-selling automobile in America for several years.

Over the next few years, nearly 250 automobile manufacturers were established, the most important of which was the Ford Motor Company in 1903.  Henry Ford had been raised on a Michigan farm, and worked as a mechanic for Westinghouse and the Edison Electric Company.  In 1904-1905, the automobile industry began producing larger, more durable, and more expensive touring cars, which could better withstand jolts on the country’s rough roads.  After selling several heavy models, Ford bucked the industry trend in 1908 with his Model T (“Tin Lizzy”), an automobile that was lightweight but durable, simply designed with no frills, available only in black, and affordable to the average consumer.  Within a year, Ford sold 12,000 Model Ts at $840 apiece, while innovations and market success gradually reduced the price further over the years to $290 by 1924. 

At his Highland Park (Michigan) plant in 1910, Ford introduced gravity slides to move car parts from one workstation to another, and by the end of 1913, a system of chain conveyors moved parts alone the assembly line.  That innovation drastically cut assembly time for the 5000 standardized parts of the Model T from 12 hours to two.  Other car manufacturers followed Ford’s lead, resulting in one million automobiles registered in the United States for the first time in 1916, rising to 8 million by 1920, and 23 million by 1929.  Despite rivals, the Model T continued to be the most popular car, accounting for half the world’s automobiles in 1920. 

The immense popularity of the automobile prompted the expansion of paved roads in the United States, with 500,000 miles by 1925 and 1 million by 1935.  It also fostered the mass publication of roadmaps, easier and faster geographic mobility, more distant vacationing, suburbanization, real-estate development in Florida and California, construction of motels (small roadway hotels for motorists), establishment of driving schools, and selling of automobile insurance.  Although negative stereotypes about female drivers arose quickly, the automobile gave women far more freedom of movement than they had ever experienced before.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Invader"
November 28, 2023

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