The First Car: Built by a retired French artillery officer named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, the world's first automobile was a three-wheeled, steam-powered monstrosity that could cruise around the local village at a mind-bending 2 mph. (Some sources say it could go as fast as 4 mph, but quibbling aside, the thing was slow.) Additionally, every 10 to 20 minutes, the machine had to come to a complete stop while the operator built up enough steam pressure in the boiler to get moving again. Despite being slightly less efficient than just putting on a pair of shoes and walking, the French government decided the proto-auto had at least one practical use—hauling heavy cannons to battle sites.
So Why Haven't You Heard Of It? Because shortly into one of its first trial runs, Cugnot lost control of his contraption and crashed it into a stone wall. (Let us all take a moment of silence to reflect on that event, remembering that this vehicle topped out at a speed somewhat slower than your average mall-walker.) Apparently, the French military was equally troubled by the fact that something so slow could get that out of hand. They cancelled their funding for the project, effectively postponing the era of the automobile by more than 100 years. However, all things considered, Cugnot landed himself a pretty sweet deal. The French government awarded him a pension for his genius, and though it was briefly cancelled during the French Revolution, Napoleon reinstated it shortly before Cugnot's death in 1804.
This summer, we'll be re-running parts of "The 20 Greatest Mistaikes in History," Maggie Koerth-Baker's cover story from March-April 2007. For other installments, click here.