Ten Innovations That Made History

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The 1929 Cadillac introduced Synchromesh, in which all gears are kept constantly in place, the unused ones turning freely on the shaft. Shifting was much easier and less perilous, but it still required simultaneous manipulation of the accelerator, the clutch, and the shift lever. To eliminate this nuisance, car makers began offering semiautomatic transmissions in the mid-1930s. The first fully automatic fluid-operated design appeared as Hydra-Matic in the 1940 Oldsmobile; today’s torque-converter design made its debut as Dynaflow in the 1948 Buick Roadmaster.

The automatic transmission removed the driver’s last tangible connection with the rough-and-tumble under the hood and made motoring more like using a toaster than operating a lathe. With the act of driving less inherently macho, power replaced elegance in car design as postwar youths and breadwinners resorted to chrome and fins to assert their masculinity. At the same time, the automatic transmission was the first major item in a car that most mechanics couldn’t fix and most drivers couldn’t even explain. Its introduction marked a symbolic distancing between Americans and their technology — from the clever application of familiar principles to an era where the machines that make up our everyday lives might as well run by magic.

Air conditioning (1950s)

The actor George Clooney of television’s “ER,” reflecting on his busy life, recently told Entertainment Weekly : “Driving for me is therapy. That’s my one place where I won’t be hassled.” Quite a change from early in the century, when drivers had to contend with terrible roads, constant mechanical malfunctions, and the vagaries of weather. Many advances have led to the car-as-pleasure-palace mentality, from enclosed bodies in the 1920s to stereos, telephones, and faxes today. But the most important is automotive air conditioning. Would Clooney find driving so soothing in hundred-degree heat?

Though inefficient water-based systems go back as far as 1902, Packard introduced modern automotive air conditioning in 1939, to little public interest. It was revived as a luxury after-market item in Texas—where else? —in the early 1950s. Ford and GM first offered factory a/c in 1953, and since then it has become nearly universal, despite its high cost and power consumption. The result: Commuters can now spend hours crawling through traffic in Phoenix or Las Vegas without roasting to death. Automobiles created the suburbs, but it took automotive air conditioning to create suburban sprawl and make the Sunbelt just as overcrowded as our old-fashioned cities.

Catalytic converter (1975)

In 1896 Pedro G. Salom of Philadelphia, an electric-car enthusiast, scoffed at the future of internal combustion: “Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its own column of smell!” Americans learned to put up with it, just as they had put up with a different sort of pollution from horses. As decades went by, though, the problems associated with automobile exhaust — medical and environmental as well as aesthetic—became too great to ignore.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 mandated huge reductions in the worst pollutants. Car makers responded with the catalytic converter, introduced on 1975 models, which uses finely divided platinum and palladium to turn nasty carbon monoxide into relatively benign carbon dioxide. By 1981 the catalytic converter, in combination with unleaded gasoline and redesigned engines, had cut most major pollutants by 70 percent. A trip to any freeway will reveal that the smog problem still remains, but the catalytic converter has bought several decades of time for America’s car culture until new solutions—perhaps using Salom’s beloved electric propulsion—can be developed.

Microprocessors (late 1970s)

Most of the items on this list had a big impact in one particular area of driving. The influence of microprocessors has been less dramatic but much more pervasive. With computerized suspension and ignition systems, fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, pollution control, and many others, some modern cars contain more than a hundred separate microprocessors, each doing its part to save lives, fuel, and annoyance.

The microprocessor was invented in 1970, and one early manufacturer was Motorola. As its name implies, the company had long-standing ties to the automotive industry; forty years earlier it had built the first car radio. In 1975 Motorola designed a simple chip for General Motors that recorded distance traveled on a trip. Two years later Ford asked Motorola for an electronic device to control fuel flow, spark timing, and combustion in its 1980 models. Today almost every aspect of a car’s performance can be governed by microprocessors, down to planning a route and adjusting the position of the driver’s seat. While some of these advances have been of questionable value—like talking dashboards or computer-simulated dials instead of real ones —the main value of microprocessors is the way they allow engineers to make adjustments, or even virtually redesign components, by simply putting in a new chip. This flexibility eases the conflict between innovation and mass production that has caused so many problems for the American automobile industry.