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Autoviva2011-06-29 12:37:38

Ferdinand Verbiest: Early Visionary of Auto-motion

The First Automobile Vehicle

 
 
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Ferdinand Verbiest: Early Visionary of Auto-motion

Ferdinand Verbiest, who would celebrate his 387th Anniversary today on October 9th 2010, envisioned what some claim to be the world’s first automobile. During the 1670s, he invented a self-propelled vehicle of small size, whether it was ever actually built, remains in doubt.

Born 1623, in a small village called Pittem in Flanders, which is part of today’s Belgium, Verbiest must be regarded as a universal genius. He enjoyed a broad and international education, studied humanities with the Jesuits in Bruges and philosophy and mathematics in Leuven, theology and astronomy in Seville and Rome. In 1641 he joined the Order of the Jesuits and was ordained as a priest in 1655.

In 1658, Verbiest left Europe to go on a mission to China, where the Roman Catholic Church was attempting to compensate for the loss of believers to the emerging Protestantism in Europe. In the Chinese Empire he became known under the name Nan Huairen (南懷仁) and gained himself merits as mathematician and astronomer. Verbiest also worked as a diplomat, cartographer and translator as he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Throughout his life he wrote more than thirty books and became close friends with the Kangxi Emperor, who frequently requested his teaching, in geometry, philosophy and music.

The First Automobile Vehicle


Amongst Verbiest’s many interests were also experiments with steam. Around 1672 he designed – for the Chinese Emperor’s entertainment – a steam-propelled trolley which most probably was the first working steam-powered vehicle, realizing “auto-mobility”. It is described in Verbiest’s work Astronomia Europea. It was only 65 cm long and not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver. Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open steam turbine (like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels. It is not known if Verbiest's model was ever built at the time. Another of his inventions is a steam engine to propel ships.

Verbiest died in Beijing in 1688, shortly after receiving a wound from falling off a bolting horse. He was the only Westerner in Chinese history to ever receive the honour of a posthumous name by the Emperor.

His legacy for our contemporary automobile design may not be large in terms of engineering achievements and his automobile is a far-fetch from the modern car. But his example is inspiring as it shows the power of human imagination that has just taken about four centuries to turn a tiny, wooden steam engined toy into a 500 horse power package embellished in carbon fibre.

Ferdinand Verbiest marks an early chapter in the history of the car and from here we will move on to introduce to you other creative minds from the past and present of automobile design under our news section Automobile Designers.

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