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Todmorden U3A speaker, Barrie Yates, alongside chairperson Jean Pearson
Todmorden U3A speaker, Barrie Yates, alongside chairperson Jean Pearson

Barrie Yates’ talk to Todmorden U3A was subtitled The Machine That Changed The World.

Barrie, an engineer, was referring to the almost ubiquitous motor car. He displayed a picture of a Sumerian cart circa 3,000 BCE, pointing out that the basic shape of the motor car remains the same. Apart from improvements to the interiors and the suspension of the horse-drawn coach, the next significant development was the invention of the steam engine in the 18th century.

Following Richard Trevithick’s first high-pressure steam engine, a number of discrete developments were needed before the final advance to the petrol-driven internal combustion engine was made.

Alessandro Volta paved the way for the spark plug; Giovanni Venturi’s work developed the carburettor. Others included François de Rivaz and later Etienne Lenoir and then Nikolaus Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach’s work developed and refined the internal combustion engine. Karl Benz worked on a 2-stroke then a 4-stroke engine, patented in 1886 which was used to power the first cars in production.

In 1884 Edward Butler constructed the first petrol internal combustion engine. Butler invented the spark plug, ignition magneto, coil ignition and spray jet carburettor, and was the first to use the word petrol.

In the beginning, cars were very much a rich man’s toy, and were custom built. A coach builder would construct the body, while the engine would be built elsewhere. Production-line manufacturing of more affordable cars was started by Ransom Olds in 1902, based upon assembly line techniques pioneered by Marc Isambard Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom) in 1802.

Henry Ford took up and developed this to produce the famous Model T Ford. General Motors under Alfred Sloan became the biggest motor manufacturer in the world. Sloane developed a range of models which had the same chassis. Britain has an illustrious history in motor manufacture, the most prominent names being Herbert Austin and William Morris, the latter pioneering Ford’s methods here.

Barrie commented on the implications of depleting oil reserves and climate change. In his opinion, until our public transport is improved to the degree that many can dispense with car use, hybrid vehicles are the best choice for those who wish to keep their emissions as low as possible.