The Rise of the Automobile



Grade Level & Subject: Grades8-12:Language Arts, Social Studies

Length: 1 Class Period


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the era in history that led to the creation and development of the automobile
  • Understand why the automobile experienced a rapid increase in popularity during the 1900’s
  • Analyze how the automobile impacted the development of certain trends in the U.S.
  • Comprehend the fuel-efficient vehicle movement
  • Make conjectures about future trends of the automobile in society today

National Standards Addressed:[1]

This lesson addresses the following Standards for the English Language Arts from the National Council of Teachers of English:

  • Content Standard: NL-ENG.K-12.4 COMMUNICATION SKILLS
  • Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • Content Standard: NL-ENG.K-12.7 EVALUATING DATA
  • Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g. print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience. 
  • Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g. libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

This lesson addresses the following National Standards for History from the National Center for History in the Schools:

Materials Needed:

  • Overhead Projector/Smartboard
  • Blank Paper
  • Markers, Crayons, Colored Pencils, etc.
  • Chalkboard/Dry Erase Board
  • Reproducible #1 – Early 1900’s Car Ads
  • Reproducible #2 – History of the Automobile
  • Reproducible #3 – History of the Automobile – Answer Key
  • Reproducible #4 – The Automobile: Then and Now

Students will be assessed through the following activities:

  • Completion of a car ad with a catch-phrase and 3 reasons why to buy the car
  • Answers to the questions on Reproducible #2 – History of the Automobile
  • An organized and well written 1000 word essay in answer to the writing prompt
  • Participation in class discussion


Relevant Vocabulary:

  • Alternative Fuel: A fuel other than gasoline for powering motor vehicles, such as natural gas, methanol, or electricity.[2]
  • Biodiesel:A clean-burning, non-toxic, non-petroleum based fuel that is produced from any vegetable oil or animal fat. Biodiesel dramatically reduces air pollution and is less hazardous to human health.[3]

Background Information:

The United States has been preoccupied with the automobile for quite some time. However, this would never have happened without ingenuity and great effort, largely on behalf of Henry Ford. While the first true gasoline powered car was not invented until 1885/86 by Karl Friedrich Benz in Germany[4] it only took a few decades before it gained mass popularity in the U.S. In 1908, Ford started selling the Model T, a vehicle meant for “the great multitude,” for $850.[5] Ford’s Model T helped turn cars from a luxury item into a necessity for families and people all over the United States. Besides creating the demand for cars, with the help of the assembly line Henry Ford was also able to turn out enough cars to meet this great need. Cars allowed people new access to their country; they could more easily take trips, visit new landscapes and meet new people. Automobiles also aided the transportation of goods and services in a way never seen before. In effect, the shipping economy has never been the same in this country. In addition, medicine, food, books, magazines and more all became more readily available.

One hundred years later and almost every family in the United States own at least one car. Now the topic of conversation has changed. The quick growth of the transportation infrastructure has not been completely positive. Especially in urban areas, transportation has become the number one cause of pollution.[6] Cars, trucks, planes, boats and the rest have contributed to environmental degradation, as well as, health problems in the human population that cannot be ignored. These problems have brought the topic of energy-efficiency under a spotlight. With a troubled economy and a questionable stake in the future of oil, the potential savings of energy efficient cars seems promising for many. While we are in the midst of discussion about greener, cleaner alternatives, there is an opportunity to reflect back on how and why the current transportation system grew in certain ways. By understanding these developments, certain historical trends begin to take shape and it becomes important to analyze the current movement towards fuel-efficiency and whether it will succeed. 


  • Clean Fuels: Alternative Fuel Options U.S.Environmental Protection Agency



Warm-up: Car for Sale!

  1. Pass out a piece of blank paper and coloring tools (crayons, markers, colored pencils, etc.) and ask students to spend 5 to 10 minutes drawing an ad for a car, it could be real or imaginary. Make sure that they include a catch-phrase and three reasons why someone should buy their car.  
  2. Once they are finished, show students the car ads in Reproducible #1 – Early 1900’s Car Ads on the overhead projector or SmartBoard.
  3. Ask students to compare and contrast the real ads of the early 1900’s with their own ads.
  4. How are the ads different? How are they the same? Answers will vary but point out to students that car buyers of the past and today were concerned with speed, style, safety and price.
  5.  What differences exist for someone looking for a new car in 1905 and today?
  6. As students discuss the differences, keep a list on the board of what aspects a car owner of the past looks for in a car versus a car owner of today. There should be overlap. 

Activity One: Cars: Now and Then

  1.  Discuss with your class the role of cars in modern life.
  2. Does anyone know what country invented the first car and when? The first car was invented in France in 1769 by Nicholas – Joseph Cugnot. It was steam powered.
  3. When was the first electric car invented? The actual answer of 1832 will likely surprise students who will guess a much later year. The electric car was invented in Scotland by Robert Anderson.
  4. Why do you think electric cars don’t have more of a presence in the world today? The electric car did not become popular and was later phased out largely because batteries at the time were not strong enough to power cars for great distances. They were also more expensive than alternatives.   
  5. Ask students what was happening in the U.S. in the early 19th century. How did these events affect the relationship between people and transportation systems? The Spanish-American War ended in 1898 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, immigration is rising, Industrialization is creating fast-paced modernization, people are migrating to cities, The Great Migration is continuously seeing African American move north, trains are developed, the nation’s population was on the rise, and the economy was booming, etc. 
  6. Ask students what changes in transportation have occurred recently. Biodiesel, electric cars, ethanol, and other alternative fuels and energy-efficient vehicles are in development.
  7. Pass out Reproducible #2 – History of the Automobile and have students read the articles and answer the questions at the bottom of the page.
  8. Allow students enough time to fill in the answers before reviewing with the class using Reproducible #3 – History of the Automobile – Answer Key. When students supply answers, ask them follow-up questions to guide their thought process to analyze the articles and use their personal background information to fully understand the time period and the significance of the development of the car.   
  9. Hand out Reproducible #4 – The Automobile: Then and Now and ask students to write a 1000 word essay that compares the development of the car and its swift gain in popularity in the early 1900s with the development of newer technologies. Students should use the articles from Reproducible #2 –History of the Automobile, the Internet and other legitimate outside resources to assist them in writing their prompt. Allow them the remainder of the class period to do research and have them complete the assignment for homework.

Wrap Up: Discussion

  1. Reinforce what students have learned in this class by start a discussion. Ask the following questions:
    1. Why do you think people in the early 1900’s so quickly took to cars? How did it change people’s lives? Answers will vary but make sure that the influence on migration is mentioned.
    2. What world events are happening right now that might be affecting the increased interest in fuel-efficient cars? Rising prices of oil, climate change, globalization, economic turmoil, etc.  
    3. What would make people more receptive to buying fuel efficient cars? Answers will vary.
    4. In 50 years from now, what type of fuel will most cars use? Why? Answers will vary.


  1. Fuel Alternatives:Have students research the various types of alternative fuels and energy efficient vehicles (biodiesel, ethanol fuel, electric cars, solar powered cars, etc.). Set the classroom up for a debate and have students discuss the pros and cons of each type of automobile. 



Students will leave this lesson with an understanding of the time period that saw the automobile’s rise in popularity. Students will investigate the circumstances and events that allowed the car to become integral to life in the United States. Students will also compare and contrast events of the past to the current rise in popularity of fuel-efficient vehicles. Students will develop their communication and analytical skills by writing and discussing the historical themes present during these influential periods of time. Finally, students used their own research and background knowledge to make conjectures about future developments of energy-efficient vehicles.  



Maggie Ollove – Author

            Education Associate, Earth Day Network


[2]“Alternative Fuel Entry.” OxfordDictionaries Online. Retrieved July 6, 2011 from

[3]“Emission Controls and Bio-Diesel to Reduce School-Bus Pollution.” Department of Ecology. Retrieved 1 April 2011 from

[4]“Who Invented the Automobile?.” The Library of Congress. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from

[5]“Henry Ford.” The Library of Congress American Memory. Retrieved July 7 2011 from

[6]“Mobile Source Emissions – Past, Present, and Future.” U.S.Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved July 7, 2011 from