Siegfried Marcus: The Forgotten Inventor of The Automobile

May 2, 2024 0 comments

A name that often gets sidelined when we talk about the history of automobiles is Siegfried Marcus, a pioneering Austrian inventor who built and operated a road vehicle powered by a four-stroke gasoline engine about 10 to 15 years before Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, and Carl Benz brought the first practical automobiles to life. While the trio is commonly credited as the progenitors of the automobile, Marcus's contributions beg the question: does he not merit equal recognition?

The second car of Siegfried Marcus at the Technisches Museum Vienna. Photo credit: Herbert Ortner/Wikimedia Commons

Siegfried Marcus was born on September 18, 1833, into a Jewish family in Malchin, now a part of Germany, northwest of Berlin. At the age of 12, he began working as an apprentice mechanic. Five years later, he joined an engineering company that built telegraph lines. At the age of 19, he moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire, and started working as a technician in the Physical Institute of the Medical School. Later on, he became an assistant to Professor Carl Ludwig, a physiologist. In 1860, he started his own business, a factory for mechanical and electrical equipment, which he operated until the end of his life.

Marcus's inventive genius secured him 131 patents across 16 countries, encompassing innovations such as the electric lamp, the magneto ignition system, and a blasting machine. Notably, he installed the first electric bell in Empress Elisabeth's bedroom and assumed the role of a physics instructor to the ill-fated Crown Prince Rudolf.

Around 1860, Marcus embarked on constructing his first self-propelled vehicle. At that time, the Austrian regions, now part of Poland, had begun to produce oil. From this refining process emerged kerosene, lubricating oil, and an incidental byproduct: gasoline. Marcus began experimenting with gasoline,discovering that when finely dispersed in air, gasoline could be ignited with sparks, generating explosive energy. This breakthrough led to the world's first carburetor, which he patented in 1864.

The first car of Siegfried Marcus.

For his first machine, Marcus affixed a 2-stroke internal combustion engine, burning petrol as fuel, onto a rudimentary four-wheeled cart, linking it to the rear wheels. The machine had to be started by lifting the two rear wheels off the ground and spinning them by hand. When ready to roll, the vehicle was lowered and off it went. Marcus dismantled this vehicle because it was too clumsy, and redirected his efforts toward refining its design.

The second car was a landmark, featuring a four-cycle, gasoline-powered engine, a novel carburetor design, and his magneto ignition. The car was said to reach a top speed of 10 mph.

Marcus likely constructed a third and a fourth vehicle as well. Subsequent models were refined, incorporating steering mechanisms, brakes, clutches, and other essential features. None of these later models exist today. However, his second car remains intact, preserved under the ownership of the Austrian Automobile Club and prominently displayed at the Vienna Technical Museum.


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In 1898, Marcus passed away, leaving behind a legacy that once positioned him as the undisputed originator of the motorcar. However, his rightful place in history was tragically overshadowed during the German annexation of Austria in 1938. As a Jew, Marcus fell victim to the insidious machinations of Nazi propaganda. His works were systematically obliterated, his name expunged from educational materials, and his public memorials dismantled.

Siegfried Marcus

In July 1940, the German Ministry for Propaganda sent a letter to the directors of Daimler-Benz-A.G. in Stuttgart. The propaganda ministry told Daimler-Benz management that the publishers of Germany’s two most important encyclopedias, the Meyers Lexikon and the Grosse Brockhaus, had been directed to remove the name of Siegfried Marcus and replace it with that of Gottlieb Damiler and Carl Benz as the inventors of the automobile.

An English translation of the letter can be read below:

Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

Reference number S 8100 / 4.7.4.0 / 7 1

Berlin W8, 4 July 1940
Wilhelmsplatz 8-9

To the Directorate of Daimler-Benz A.G. Stuttgart-Untert├╝rkheim

Subject: True inventor of the automobile
Referring to your letter of 30 May 1940 Dr.Wo / Fa.

The Bibliographical Institute and the publisher F. A. Brockhaus have been notified that in the future, [the encyclopedias] Meyers Konversations Lexikon and the Gro├če Brockhaus are to refer to the two German engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz as the creators of the modern automobile, not to Siegfried Marcus.

In order signed by Dr. Eckmann

The Nazi regime also ordered the destruction of the original Marcus automobile, then proudly exhibited at the Viennese Automobile Club.  Fortunately some alert and sensitive members of the Viennese Museum for Trade and Industry had the foresight to brick the machine up behind a cellar wall of the museum. Due to this courageous initiative, the automobile survived, along with a few records of its invention.

After the war, a number of Germans and Austrians made an effort to restore Marcus to his proper place in the history of technology. In 1949 an inventor, Mario Petrucci, campaigned for a monument, which had been removed during the Nazi period, to be re-erected to Siegfried Marcus in the central cemetery of Vienna. Vienna's mayor unveiled such a monument and placed it in the care of the Viennese State.

References:
# Siegfried Marcus Car, ASME
# Siegfried Marcus, ASME
# HHF Factpaper: Siegfried Marcus - An Uncredited Inventive Genius, Hebrew History
# How the Nazis Made Daimler & Benz the Inventors of the Automobile and Wrote Siegfried Marcus Out of History, The Truth About Cars

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