Stephen M. Balzer patents rotary-engine auto - HISTORY
Year
1896

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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Bill of Rights is finally ratified

Following ratification by the state of Virginia, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, become the law of the land.In September 1789, the first Congress of the United States approved 12 amendments to the U.S. Constitution and ...read more

Leaning Tower of Pisa reopens

On this day in 2001, Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa reopens after a team of experts spent 11 years and $27 million to fortify the tower without eliminating its famous lean.In the 12th century, construction began on the bell tower for the cathedral of Pisa, a busy trade center on ...read more

Jockey Sandy Hawley wins record 500th race

On December 15, 1973, Sandy Hawley becomes the first jockey to win 500 races in a single year. Born in Ontario, Canada, Hawley began working at Toronto race tracks when he was a teenager. He won his first race in October 1968 at Toronto’s Woodbine race track and quickly racked up ...read more

Sitting Bull killed by Indian police

After many years of successfully resisting white efforts to destroy him and the Sioux people, the great Sioux chief and holy man Sitting Bull is killed by Indian police at the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota.One of the most famous Native Americans of the 19th century, ...read more

Heavy rain leads to mudslides in Venezuela

Flooding and mudslides caused by extremely heavy rains on this day in 1999 kill thousands in Venezuela. Another 350,000 people, mostly the very poor, were left homeless from the terrible storm.In the Caracas metropolitan area, about 80 percent of the population was impoverished ...read more

James Brown begins his prison sentence

Legendary singer James Brown, also known as the “Godfather of Soul” and the “Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” becomes inmate number 155413 at the State Park Correctional Institute in South Carolina. Brown had had several run-ins with the law during the summer of 1988 that ...read more

Battle of Nashville, Tennessee

On this day in 1864, the once powerful Confederate Army of Tennessee is nearly destroyed when a Union army commanded by General George Thomas swarms over the Rebel trenches around Nashville.The Battle of Nashvillewas thefinale in a disastrous year for General John Bell Hood’s ...read more

The Bill of Rights becomes law

On this day in 1791, Virginia becomes the last state to ratify the Bill of Rights, making the first ten amendments to the Constitution law and completing the revolutionary reforms begun by the Declaration of Independence. Before the Massachusetts ratifying convention would ...read more