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Stephen M. Balzer patents rotary-engine auto

On this day in 1896, the U.S. government awards Patent Number 573,174 to inventor Stephen M. Balzer for a gasoline-powered motor buggy that he built two years earlier. Balzer never mass-produced any of his cars, but his “experimental” vehicle was one of the first functioning automobiles to be built in the United States. Today, the Balzer car is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was the first gas-powered car in the museum’s collection.

In 1894, Balzer was working in the machine-manufacturing business by day; by night, he was building an internal-combustion motor car that he hoped would make him famous. The Balzer car had a three-cylinder, air-cooled rotary motor. It was open at the top and sides, so it looked a bit like a park bench held awkwardly aloft by four pneumatic bicycle tires. Unlike other autos of the era, the Balzer’s rear wheels were much larger than its front wheels–they were 28 and 18 inches across, respectively. This design quirk helped the car to keep its traction and its maneuverability. (Some modern-day tractors still use this wheel configuration.) Though his car could not go faster than 4 miles per hour, New York City police officers still insisted that Balzer be accompanied on his test-drives by an assistant marching ahead of the sputtering vehicle, warning pedestrians out of the way by waving a giant red flag.

Balzer incorporated the Balzer Motor Company in 1900, but he was more interested in tinkering with engines than in the business side of auto manufacturing, and so the company never made any money. Later, Balzer helped to design the motor in Professor S.P. Langley’s famously ill-fated 1903 flying machine (after floating through the air for about 100 yards, it crashed and sank to the bottom of the Potomac River). After that, he spent his career designing and manufacturing surgical equipment. Balzer died in 1940.

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