Flashback: the origins of the speedometer


An instrument so ubiquitous we hardly notice it, the speedometer was once a marvel of the emerging automotive age

If you are venturing out for that holiday road trip to Grandma’s, watch your speed, the local constabulary certainly will be. The instrument that informs you of your speed can be also be seen as an unwelcome nanny, especially annoying to those with a lead foot.

Speedometers are so commonplace it’s easy to think they have always been a part of the car. But the car preceded the instrument, and soon both engineers and law enforcement authorities saw the need for measuring speed – for different reasons, of course. 


Instrument panel of the 1938 Lincoln Zephyr. Large centre-mounted speedometer – easy to read and backlit

Precursors to the speedometer included the ‘velocimeter’ by Josip Belušić, introduced at the Paris exhibition of 1889 and subsequently installed on a number of horse-drawn carriages in Paris. Charles Babbage, considered by many to be the father of the computer, invented a speedometer that was used on locomotives.

The first automotive speedometer was invented by Arthur P. Warner, who adapted one of the instruments he devised for measuring the speeds of industrial cutting tools, called a cut-meter. He installed this on his 1901 Oldsmobile “curved dash” Runabout, and soon his company Warner Electric* was supplying Oldsmobile, as well as Overland and Cadillac, gradually growing to supply about 90 percent of the cars produced in the US with the magical instrument.

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