Chevy and barnThe first internal combustion-powered automobile was not invented by an American (thank you, Karl Benz). But we did invent the motorcycle (coal-powered), air brake, AC motor, stop sign, tractor, assembly line, automatic transmission, muffler, tow truck, bulldozer, car radio, tracked amphibious landing vehicle, stock car racing, cruise control, carbon fiber, the integrated circuit, satellite navigation, airbags, catalytic converter, The Mars Rover and even the Segway. In other words, we didn't invent the automobile but we did contribute much of the technology that makes it what it is today.

In fact, we'd argue that while the Industrial Revolution began in the textile mills and iron foundries of Great Britain, the entire world went mobile when we Americans got our hands on the automobile. When Henry Ford introduced the assembly line (with conveyor) in 1918 1913, he put the world on wheels. Before the Model T, cars were conveyances for the wealthy, but the assembly line brought down costs to the point where car ownership became attainable to all. Ol' Henry's assembly line was so successful that the model was applied to almost every other area of manufacturing the world over, driving down the cost of goods and making life better for all.

[Image: rogerimp | CC 2.0]

The auto industry even mechanized the U.S. military leading up to World War II. Back in 1940, Ford manufacturing whiz Charlie Sorensen traveled to California to witness the construction of military aircraft. What he saw was an antiquated production process that was rife with variability - the enemy of speed an quality. Sorensen told military brass that he could do better, and one day later he laid out plans to build a B-24 bomber every hour. Ford Motor Company then backed up Sorensen's words by building Willow Run. It was the largest manufacturing facility in the world at the time, with a mile-long assembly line. Willow Run ended up churning out 25 Liberators per day and 8,800 bombers during its production run. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler built everything from parts to tanks to aircraft, and did so on a scale never before seen in the history of mankind. Our manufacturing might made this country the most powerful nation on earth, and automotive production was a big part of its ascent to power. When soldiers returned from war, car factories went back to doing what they did best: pumping out American metal.

Much has happened in the ensuing decades: the outrageous designs of Harley Earl; the muscle-car era; the entry of Japanese and Korean automakers into the U.S. market; the new horsepower wars; the push for greener transportation. America is the home to the first mass-produced V8 engine, the Model T, the 1932 Ford Coupe, the '57 Chevy, the Corvette, the Mustang and the Challenger. Today this country is home to dozens of production facilities from both transplants and domestic automakers, providing thousands of high-wage jobs to the citizenry.

Through everything, Americans have treated the automobile as a family member. Heck, we'd wager that many Autoblog readers can trace back their love of cars to the ones their fathers and grandfathers were constantly tinkering with in the garage.

There's a good reason the United States has been the number one consumer of automobiles for the better part of the last century. This country is huge, with 3.8 million square miles of land and 8.5 million lane miles of roads. This 4th of July weekend, an estimated 35 million Americans are traveling to areas around the country to be with family, have a BBQ and witness (or perhaps light) some fireworks.

The vast majority of those travelers aren't on planes, trains or buses; they're in their cars and on the open road. And that's exactly where we hope you are this holiday; enjoying the precious freedom to roam about this great nation. Happy 4th of July.

[With information from the Timeline of United States inventions]