During the first decades of the 20th century, automobiles reshaped American society. They became the backbone of a new consumer goods-oriented economy, and provided jobs to people working in related industries like steel and petroleum. They also increased people’s freedom to move around, and encouraged family vacations to remote destinations. It was possible for urban dwellers to rediscover pristine landscapes, while rural residents could shop in towns.
The modern automobile is a four-wheeled vehicle with seating for two to six passengers and a small amount of cargo. Its name derives from the French word auto + mobile (“self-propelled”). The automobile has an internal combustion engine fueled with gasoline (petrol), or another fuel such as natural gas or electricity. The automotive industry is one of the world’s largest and most successful, and has contributed many important technological advances in its long history.
The technical building blocks of the automobile date back several hundred years. In the late 1600s, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens developed a type of internal combustion engine sparked by gunpowder. By the end of the 1800s, several different types of automobiles were in use. These included steam vehicles, which were limited by their range; battery-powered electric cars, which had a 38 percent share of the market but were cumbersome to start and slow to accelerate; and gasoline-powered motorcars, which soon dominated the market.
Various definitions have emerged for what constitutes an automobile, with most now including cars with seating for more than six people, and excluding trucks and buses that carry large numbers of passengers. A station wagon or a van may be included in this category, depending on its size and style.