How Did Old Cars Measure Speed? (Explained)

One of the things that you should know when it comes to cars is that it is very important for you to look at the speedometer from time to time because of how you want to keep yourself driving at steady speeds for safety and legal reasons.

But, then again, the speedometer wasn’t always a part of the construction of most vehicles back in the day.

Cars that were made during the earlier days of the automobile did not have speedometers.

So, how did those older cars measure speed?

They didn’t measure speed. That’s because, during the time before the speedometer became a standard in cars, there weren’t a lot of cars on the road and the same cars that were on the road weren’t going fast enough yet. At that time, the speed at which you were going was not yet a big issue.

Old car speedometer

The thing you need to understand about the speedometer is that the concept of wanting to know how fast the vehicle was going and the laws that governed how fast people needed to go were still yet to be conceived during the early days of the automobile.

As such, the speedometer was yet to be a tool that people needed. Luckily, it was introduced and has become one of the most useful instruments on any vehicle.

Did the first car have a speedometer?

The history of automobiles is an interesting topic to talk about in relation to the speedometer and how people were able to tell how fast they were going while driving.

That’s because you would be able to see how far the world has evolved just by simply looking at the birth and evolution of the speedometer alongside how cars improved as well.

But, in relation to that, did the first car have a speedometer?

Karl Benz is largely credited for bringing the world’s first automobile to life. It was in 1885 when he completed the single-cylinder four-stroke engine that became one of the foundational structures of the world’s first car.

Then, a year later, he applied for a patent for a vehicle that was powered by a gas engine. Of course, this eventually became the automobile or simply the car.

However, even though Benz’s invention was amazing in its own right, the car still wasn’t quite popular back then.

Benz eventually started producing his automobiles in 1888 after his wife proved to the world that these vehicles were capable of long-distance trips.

However, the vehicle was still a novelty not only because it was still new and largely unproven but also because not a lot of people had access to the car.

That said, it was needless to say that the first cars that Benz and the other inventors invented did not have a speedometer. This is due to the fact that the speedometer was yet to be invented at that time as it was only introduced to the world in 1902 by Otto Schulze. 

Before Schulze invented what became the foundational technology for the first speedometers, the car introduced in 1901, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash Runabout, was the first to have an early and primitive version of a speedometer.

Instead, it was using the same cut-meter that was used for industrial machines to tell how fast these machines were moving.

Still, the fact of the matter is that the earlier versions of the car, which became available to the public during the latter part of the 1800s, still did not feature the speedometer as this was yet to be invented.

How did old cars measure speed?

So, considering that the first cars in the world did not have a speedometer, how could they even measure how fast they were going?

Well, for starters, they did not measure the speed of their cars because they didn’t need to at that time. 

That’s because the earliest versions of the automobiles available to the public were not even that fast, to begin with.

For example, Benz’s car had a top speed of 10 miles per hour, which isn’t even marginally faster than how fast an average man can run.

And because that is the top speed, you would expect that the average speed of the earliest cars was not even close to 10 miles per hour.

Another reason why there was no reason for them to measure speed was due to the fact that laws regarding the speed of automobiles were yet to be conceived back then.

It was only in 1901—one year before the speedometer was invented—that Connecticut became the first state to implement a law that regulated automobile speed, which was 12 miles per hour in cities and 15 miles per hour on country roads. 

As such, before the speedometer and before speed laws became mainstream, there was no reason for people to know how fast they were going.

The speed of a vehicle was yet to become an issue for them at a time when cars weren’t that fast and when states were not yet looking to regulate motor vehicle speeds.

When did cars first get speedometers?

Even though the first speedometer for a car was introduced back in 1902, it was only in 1910 that cars began to have speedometers as part of their standard instruments.

This was several years after more states began adopting speed laws as cars were beginning to become faster and faster.

Of course, the first mass-produced assembly-line car was unveiled in 1908 by the Ford company. It was only two years later that it became required for cars such as the ones that Ford mass-produced to have speedometers. 

It was easy to understand why the speedometer was becoming more important not only because the entire country was already implementing speed laws but also because cars such as the Ford Model T were becoming faster as well.

The 1908 Model T actually sported a speed of 45 miles per hour, which is already fast enough to the point that people needed a way for them to know how fast they were going or else they would end up violating speed limit laws.

Who made the first speedometer?

The first speedometer that eventually became the kind of speedometer that cars from the 1910s onwards used was invented by a German engineer named Otto Schulze, who patented that technology back in 1902.

Schulz’s speedometer used the basic principles of magnetism.

It used a cable that was connected to a magnet that had a balanced copper cup, which was also attached to the pointer that you could see in the speedometer. 

The way the speedometer worked relied on eddy currents, which were produced when the magnet rotated near the copper or aluminum cup. After that, a magnetic field will be produced, and that is when the magnet will begin to exert a torque on the cup to move it together with the speedometer pointer it was attached to. As such, the speedometer needle was moving and rotating due to the magnetic field produced by the magnet.


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