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Auto inventor Charles Duryea dies

On September 28, 1938, inventor Charles Duryea dies in Philadelphia at the age of 76. Duryea and his brother Frank designed and built one of the first functioning “gasoline buggies,” or gas-powered automobiles, in the United States. For most of his life, however, Charles insisted on taking full credit for the brothers’ innovation. On the patent applications he filed for the Duryea Motor Wagon, for instance, Charles averred that he was the car’s sole inventor; he also loftily proclaimed that his brother was “simply a mechanic” hired to execute Charles’ plans.

Charles Duryea was not the inventor of the first gasoline engine, nor was he the first person to build a gas-powered car. Instead, as his obituary in the New York Times put it, he “had the rare mechanical wit to see how the contributions of his predecessors could be combined into a sound invention.” In 1886, Charles was working as a bicycle mechanic in Peoria when he received a jolt of inspiration from a gasoline engine he saw at a state fair. There was no reason, he thought, why such a motor could not be used to power a lightweight quadricycle. He spent seven years designing and redesigning his machine, a one-cylinder, four-horsepower, tiller-steered car with a water-cooled gas engine, a buggy body, and narrow metal oak-spoked wheels turned by bicycle chains. The car also had an electric ignition and a spray carburetor, both designed by Frank.

In September 1893, Frank Duryea took the finally-completed Motor Wagon out for its first official spin. He only managed to splutter about 600 feet down his block before the car’s friction-belt transmission failed, but even so, it was clear that the Duryea auto was a promising machine. It’s worth noting that Charles missed all this excitement: Frank and the car were in Springfield, Massachusetts, while the elder Duryea was fixing bikes in Peoria.

Two years later, on Thanksgiving Day, an improved Duryea Motor Wagon with pneumatic rubber tires won the first auto race in the United States. In 1896, the brothers built and sold 13 identical Duryeas, making theirs the first American company to manufacture more than one automobile at a time. After that, the brothers parted ways: Frank went on to build and sell the Stevens-Duryea Limousine, while Charles (“unable,” his Times obituary said, “to adapt himself to the public taste”) worked on designing less practical vehicles like tiller-steered mechanical tricycles.

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