It didn't take long for the first users of powered vehicles to realise that getting them to stop is just as important as getting them to go. Even if the motive power is a horse, you need a way to slow the cart.
The first brake system was nothing more than a lever pushing a block of wood onto the outside of the wheel. While it's extremely crude, it is simple, cheap and easy to maintain.
However, when Michelin introduced pneumatic "Éclair" rubber tyres in 1895, a better solution was needed. While Gottlieb Daimler came up with the idea of wrapping a cable around a drum, French manufacturer Louis Renault is usually credited as the first manufacturer of drum brakes in 1902.
Although this was an improvement on its wood block predecessor, manufacturers soon found that drum brakes were affected by temperature and incursions by dust, snow and water.
The solution was to place the brake pads inside a drum where they were more isolated from the elements.
The next major innovation came when Malcolm Loughead built the first hydraulic braking system in 1918. Instead of a cable, this uses fluid to carry force to the brake shoes. A master cylinder piston under the brake pedal activates a slave cylinder at the other end. By the late 1920s this technology was available, but didn't become mainstream until the 1950s.
An obvious improvement was to put brakes on all four wheels. At the 1924 New York Auto Show, only two manufacturers displayed them. While some brands included them as a cost option, they didn't become standard for several decades.
Even though drum brakes continued to advance with improvements in pad material and "twin leading shoe" designs, their stopping power was limited. Also, being enclosed within a drum means they are prone to overheating. Then, as cars rapidly became faster and more common, this was a pressing problem.
The answer ironically involved moving the brake pads outside again. Although William Lanchester patented the disc brake in 1902, they didn't became popular until the 1950s.
Since then, there have been many refinements such as power-assist and anti-lock systems.
In all, this story follows the familiar trend of technology from crude and simple, to effective, but at the cost of increasing complexity.
Gone are the days when a backyard mechanic could fix almost any problem. Now you need a bank of training, specialised equipment and a super computer to do anything more than top up the radiator.
The biggest recent trend has been in electronic monitoring systems, with squawking alarms and flashing lights alerting you to every danger, real and imagined. This minimises human intervention, with drivers becoming passengers and mechanics becoming customers.
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