Dear Mr. Bottorff:

My five-year-old son is an automobile fanatic (he could recognize most varieties of cars at the age of two), so today when he asked me about the earliest automobiles, I ended up at your website and found a wonderfully detailed history that included many things I'd never heard before. He loved it.

However, one thing particularly attracted my interest and caused me to postpone my regular work (I teach world history, among other things). It was the mention of "Wisconsin State University" in regard to the early history of automobiles -- the first in America -- at I'm a graduate of the University of Wisconsin (Madison) -- B.A. 1965 -- and rather doubted the school involved was called "Wisconsin State University" -- although schools do change their names.

As I tell my students, perfectly accurate history is rare (as Henry Ford commented, "History is, more or less, bunk"), and secondary sources (not from the horse's mouth) have to be checked against other sources, if at all possible. Although my initial check found many sources, all seem to have come from your history. So you were the only source, really.

Then, by good fortune, I went to the Wisconsin State Historical Society. They have a photocopy of a newspaper article from 1921 -- -- that includes a very, very long quoted letter from J. W. Carhart -- the inventor of the first American automobile. There are several other articles on this site about those early days:

Carhart was not a professor, he was a minister. His brother was later a professor.

As far as I can tell, J. W. Carhart was a Doctor of Divinity and a minister of the Methodist Episcopal church in Racine. In later years, he became a medical doctor. An article written by Reverend J. W. Carhart may be found on page 257 of the Ladies' Repository (a publication of the Methodist Episcopal Church General Conference) for May 1867 --

According to the inventor's letter published posthumously in 1921, he was assisted with the drawings of his invention by his brother, who was visiting. My further research (I really should get back to my own work, but this was interesting) found that his brother, who later became the author of several physics textbooks and a noted expert in electrical engineering, was at the time about 27 (born in 1844 in New York). He was  working on an M.A. (A.M.), completed in 1873 at Wesleyan University. In 1872 he became professor of physics at Northwestern University -- located in Evanston, IL, not far from Racine, WI. In 1886 he was made a professor at the University of Michigan where he stayed until retirement.

But it was the minister, not the brother, who invented the car -- and ran it on the streets of Racine, to the consternation of many (it was extremely noisy, he says). He thinks it might have been the first light automobile. You probably can judge that better than I. As for the year, he says he began work in 1871, but in one of the articles on the site (written in Racine in 1929), it says the work was being done in a shop financed  by a rich man in the lumber business in 1873.

I found it particularly interesting that (1) I guessed right (no Wisconsin State University involved here), (2) that this is a late evidence for something I am teaching this week to students in Seoul, Korea (that the Christian church was the repository of virtually all knowledge and science for many centuries -- once called the "Dark Ages" in Europe), and (3) the State of Wisconsin offered a prize of $10,000 (in today's money, perhaps equal to a million dollars according to data from

This rich reward is claimed as the first prize ever offered by a government for R&D, but who can be sure -- maybe it is the first for a practical automobile. The prize was to be awarded to the winner of a 200-mile race in which only two cars finally competed (eleven registered) -- one built by investors from Oshkosh, the other by investors from Green Bay. The Oshkosh car finished the race successfully (average speed of 6 mph) and seems (to me at least) to have met the requirements of the prize. The commission created to judge the contest couldn't agree to award the prize, so referred it to the legislature which gave only HALF of the money to the winners (to defer their costs, it is said). Another example of Government not living up to its promises -- even more than a century ago -- that's another lesson from history. On the other hand $500,000 in today's currency isn't bad.

One more point. The "J. I. Case Company" did not have a direct part in building the car (according to the inventor) -- it supplied parts made to the order of the inventor. I'd remove mention of it, since it didn't directly work on the car and was just a supplier. At the time, it was called J. I. Case and Company. It was dissolved in 1880, and the inventor in his letter gives it a later name -- "J. I. Case Threshing Machine" -- an anachronism, since this company was formed after the partnership dissolved.

You have a great site. Thanks again for your hard work. I hope this long letter makes a tiny improvement in one paragraph of your history.


Fredric Dennis Williams