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1894 Balzer automobile

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1894 Balzer automobile
Smithsonian Institution, Negative #: 45576-A


This object appears in the following sections:

Making Sense of "Failed" Car Technology — Not so Famous Makes

Making Sense of "Failed" Car Technology — Introduction

Smithsonian Automobile Collection — Car collection, pre-1900

Rear view of 1894 Balzer automobile
Rear view of 1894 Balzer automobile

Close up of 1894 Balzer automobile's engine showing one cylinder, exhaust side.
Close up of 1894 Balzer automobile's engine showing one cylinder, exhaust side.

Close up of Balzer engine
Close up of Balzer engine

Balzer automobile patents

Cadillac automobile

Balzer automobile
Catalog #: 181,658, Accession #: 35,051
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

Although there are now older cars in the museum's collection, this gasoline-powered automobile was the first car acquired by the Smithsonian. The automobile was donated to the institution by Stephen M. Balzer on May 16, 1899. It was the first automobile he built. The museum's accession files describe the vehicle as an "experimental 4 wheeled road carriage, driven by rotating gasoline engine, 1894." Balzer claimed to have built at least three cars in the late nineteenth century. These cars, and their rotary engines, brought Balzer to the notice of then Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley.

In November 1898, Assistant Secretary Richard Rathbun wrote to Balzer on Langley's behalf and asked him to build an engine for the secretary's experiments with heavier-than-air flight. The engine was meant to take four months to build, but it took far longer for Balzer to deliver a rotary engine to the Institution. In 1900, Langley was still waiting for the engine to be delivered. Langley's assistant, Charles M. Manly, heavily modified Balzer's engine, turning it into a radial engine and improving its performance. For many years, the Smithsonian credited this engine as the Manly engine, and when Stephen M. Balzer died in 1940, his obituary in the New York Times was subtitled "Asserted He Built Motor in the Langley Flying Machine, Credited to C. M. Manly." (October 1, 1940). The National Air and Space Museum now acknowledges Balzer's contributions to the engine and calls it the Balzer-Manly engine.

Physical Description
This early automobile is less than six-feet long and three-feet wide. The four-wheeled vehicle’s front wheels are ten inches smaller than the rear ones. The front wheels are mounted on bicycle type forks that are connected by a tie-rod and steered by a tiller. The automobile has a three-cylinder, air-cooled, rotary-type engine. When the engine was running, the cylinders and crank case revolved in a vertical plane around the stationary crankshaft. A stub shaft, turning with the crank case, carried the driving gears of a three-step, constant-mesh transmission that had three forward speeds and no reverse. The driver selected the desired gear ratio by operating a lever on the right that keyed the appropriate driven gear to its shaft. The same lever also controlled the clutch.
Date Made:
New Jersey, New York
Gift of Stephen M. Balzer
Stephen Marius Balzer (1864?-1940) was a Hungarian immigrant who arrived in New York in the 1870s. Balzer apprenticed at Tiffany’s as a watchmaker and then went to work at a machine shop in 1884. An active inventor, with a number of patents to his credit, Balzer later set up his own machine shop. He built his first car in 1894. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Balzer tried to enter into the car business and set up the Balzer Motor Company to exploit his automobile related inventions. This endeavor was not very successful, and Balzer seems to have severed his ties with the company bearing his name by 1902. After ceasing to manufacture automobiles, Balzer continued to work as a mechanical engineer. He seems to have moved to Andover, N.J., at some point in the 1910s and set up the Balzer Engineering Company there. Balzer lived in Andover at the time of his death in 1940.

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