The First Car: Built by a retired French artillery officer named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, the world's first automobile was a three-wheeled, steam-powered monstrosity that could cruise around the local village at a mind-bending 2 mph. (Some sources say it could go as fast as 4 mph, but quibbling aside, the thing was slow.) Additionally, every 10 to 20 minutes, the machine had to come to a complete stop while the operator built up enough steam pressure in the boiler to get moving again. Despite being slightly less efficient than just putting on a pair of shoes and walking, the French government decided the proto-auto had at least one practical use—hauling heavy cannons to battle sites.
This summer, we'll be re-running parts of "The 20 Greatest Mistaikes in History," Maggie Koerth-Baker's cover story from March-April 2007. For other installments, click here.