Today in History

Today in History: November 28

The First American Automobile Race

At 8:55 a.m. on November 28, 1895, six "motocycles" left Chicago's Jackson Park for a 54-mile race to Evanston, Illinois, and back—through the snow. Number 5, piloted by inventor J. Frank Duryea, won the race in just over 10 hours at an average speed of about 7.3 miles per hour! The winner earned $2,000; the enthusiast who named the horseless vehicles "motocycles" won $500; and the Chicago Times-Herald, sponsor of the race, declared:

Persons who are inclined…to decry the development of the horseless carriage…will be forced…to recognize it as an admitted mechanical achievement, highly adapted to some of the most urgent needs of our civilization.

"The Future of the Motocycle," the Chicago Times-Herald, November 29, 1895, 6.

Jackson Park
Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Only two years earlier in Springfield, Massachusetts, brothers Charles and J. Frank Duryea had built and driven what they claimed was the first American gasoline-powered automobile. Yet, as if by spontaneous combustion, over 70 entries were filed for the race, a response so overwhelming that President Cleveland asked the War Department to oversee the event. Following their victory in the race, the Duryeas manufactured 13 copies of the Chicago car, and J. Frank Duryea developed the "Stevens-Duryea," an expensive limousine that remained in production into the 1920s.

There were American antecedents to the Duryeas' winning vehicle. As early as 1826, Samuel Morey filed a patent, bearing the signatures of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, for an internal combustion engine. George Brayton, Sephaniah Reese, Henry Nadig, and William T. Harris all produced self-propelled machines.

Charles Black developed an 18-horsepower "chug buggy" in 1891—the same year that John Lambert developed a three-wheel motor buggy. After seeing the 1895 Chicago Times-Herald race, Lambert went on to produce four-wheel vehicles at his Buckeye Manufacturing Company.

The Stanley twins, Francis Edgar (F. E.) and Freelan Oscar (F. O.), built a steam-powered vehicle in 1897. The "Stanley Steamer" achieved fame when F. E. Stanley did a mile in 2:11 on a dirt track with a 30-degree incline.

George Eastman bought the rights to the Stanley's earlier photographic dry-plate patents, supplying the brothers with capital to manufacture 200 standing orders for the Steamer, which eventually became the "Locomobile." By the time that Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in 1903, the Stanley's plant already employed 140 workers.

In the interview "Transportation," Arthur Botsford of Thomaston, Connecticut, recalled his "first and fastest auto ride" and the earliest automobile makes:

I was hikin' along over towards Terryville to get the trolley and Jack come along and I flagged him. I was late. I says, "Jack, can we make the trolley," and he says, "'Sure," and how we did fly. We made it all right.

The different cars they used to be. I used to keep a list of 'em. There was the Pope Hartford, and the Stevens Duryea, and the Locomobile, and the Peerless and the National, and the Saxon, and the Metz—I can't remember them all.

Billy Gilbert, that used to live next to me here, he had a Stanley Steamer. He was an engineer. He's out in Californy now. Spent all his life on the railroads and he swore by steam. Wouldn't have a gasoline engine.

After he moved to Californy he wrote me a letter. Said there was a big hill out there beyond San Francisco nine miles long. Said ten tow cars was kept busy on that hill all the time. But that steamer of his just ate it up.

"Transportation," Francis Donovan, interviewer, January 5, 1939.
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Long view of racing cars
Riemer's Loco Winning Five-Miles Event in 10:51 4-5, Grosse Pointe Track, Detroit,
c- 1902.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Like its predecessor horse racing, automobile racing provided the stiff competition that helped to "refine the breed." When the Stanleys brought their 50-horsepower "Rocket" to the 1906 winter races at Ormond Beach, Florida, driver Fred Marriott clocked 127.66 mph, becoming the first driver to move faster than 2 miles per minute.

The Indianapolis 500 was born in 1911. This famous race fostered the development of innovations such as the rear-view mirror. By the time that Berna Eli "Barney" Oldfield sped to the top of Pike's Peak in 1915, motor car production was booming and automobile racing was a well-established sport.

In a January 1926 issue of the American Automobile Association's magazine, The American Motorist, Walter Carver explained the influence of racing on innovations in motorcar construction:

Probably but few readers will associate this trend of reduction in engine size with the racing game, for to most people, racing is a game or a mighty dangerous sport which draws its actors from the sons of millionaires or "nut" garage hands…Racing is and has been more than a game. Men have given their lives to prove some point of better motor car operation…speed, acceleration, braking which must be attendant upon high speed, all have been bettered as the result of somebody's efforts at designing something better which went out and won on some perilous track.

Walter Carver, "What the Show Will Show," The American Motorist,
January, 1926, 11.
Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Panoramic view of Corona Speedway
Corona Speedway, Start of the Medium & Heavyweight Auto Race,
c 1913.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Crossing the Pacific

Fernando Magellan
Fernando Magellan, Half-length Portrait, Facing Left; Holding Globe and Compass,
Engraving, 1886.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Three ships under the command of native Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan entered "The Sea of the South" on November 28, 1520, having sailed from the Atlantic Ocean through the passage that came to be known as the Straits of Magellan. This sailing was the first westward crossing of the Pacific.

Gutierrez Map
First Map of California,
Diego Gutierrez,
Map Collections

The fleet reached the island of Guam on March 6, 1521, after a voyage so remarkable for its calm that the explorers called the ocean "Pacific." Setting foot on land, the crew that had been reduced to eating leather enjoyed fresh food for the first time in ninety-nine days.

Magellan was killed in fighting with the natives of Mactan Island in the Philippines on April 27, 1521. The following September, one of the fleet's five ships returned to Spain laden with spices, thereby completing the first circumnavigation of the globe and vindicating Magellan's vision of an alternate route to the Spice Islands.

The Library of Congress has additional materials on exploration.