Life was much simpler when the automobile was still a curiosity.

No cell phones, Internet or ATMs. Television? Forget about it. Airport? Never heard of such a thing. Welcome to the world of 100 years ago.

The Ford Motor Co. was formed in Detroit on June 16, 1903. Henry Ford and 11 business associates started the venture with $28,000 in cash and set out to change the fledgling auto industry. Ford was named vice president and general manager in charge of production.

The first car offered by Ford was dubbed the Model A. It was touted as "the most perfect machine on the market" and "so simple that a boy of 15 can run it." The first sale was made to Dr. Ernest Pfennig, a Chicago dentist, who paid $850 for the vehicle one month after the company's incorporation. During its first 15 months of operation, Ford assembled 1,700 automobiles.

In 1903, automobiles were widely regarded as a curiosity. Most "horseless carriages" were constructed with carriage- or wagon-style bodies originally designed for horse-drawn vehicles. In fact, "Get a horse!" was shouted at many early motorists, along with profanities.

Early advertising and sales literature often mentioned horses. "A car can be left standing without running away when the band plays, or when the flies are bad, or when a train goes by, or when a newspaper blows across the street," touted the copy in a mail-order catalog from Sears, Roebuck & Co., which sold automobiles, supplies and accessories. "No sympathy necessary for leaving it out in the rain or cold, and it will be your umbrella, taking you home just as cheerfully in a pouring rain as in sunshine."

Only 23,000 motor cars were registered in the United States and hundreds of long-obscure manufacturers were competing for business. For instance, the 1903 Chicago Auto Show featured 325 different vehicles from 80 manufacturers. Seventy-five percent of the vehicles on display used internal combustion engines, while the remainder relied on either electric or steam power.

Early motorists encountered primitive dirt roads that often consisted of little more than wagon-wheel ruts. Because dust and mud were major obstacles, protective clothing was essential. "Goggles are a necessary part of the equipment of every auto tourist," proclaimed a contemporary Sears catalog. "With them you are protected from flying dust and given a longer and clearer range of vision."

In 1903, the automobile was starting to gain popularity through publicity stunts, such as transcontinental trips. Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker spent 2 months driving from San Francisco to New York City in a two-cylinder, 20-hp Winton. Within a few weeks, an Oldsmobile and a Packard also made coast-to-coast trips. New land speed records were established five times in 1903, as daredevils pushed the barrier from 77.1 mph to 84.7 mph.

The Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM) was established on March 5, 1903. It was an organization of 18 automakers that agreed to recognize the validity of a U.S. patent granted to George Selden in 1895. The manufacturers agreed to pay royalties and to take licenses under the patent.

During its brief, 8-year existence, the controversial organization was involved in continuous litigation with many individuals, including Henry Ford. However, ALAM was instrumental in standardizing numerous auto parts, such as spark plugs, screw threads, nuts, bolts, tubing and rods. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) evolved out of the Mechanical Branch of ALAM.

One hundred years ago, the world was a very different place. It was a simpler time. For instance, the entire population of the United States was 80,632,000—less than one-third of today's population. More than half the U.S. population lived on farms or in rural areas.

Cities were crisscrossed by streetcar tracks and overhead telephone wires. It was not unusual to hear the clip-clop of horse-drawn wagons. Refrigerators did not exist—ice came in giant blocks. Wax cylinders were the most common form of recorded music.

Electricity was still a relatively new phenomenon. In transportation and industry, steam power was the rule rather than the exception.

One-fifth of the world's land was occupied by the British Empire. King Edward VII had recently assumed the throne after Queen Victoria passed away.

Victorian fashion still held sway on both sides of the Atlantic and hats were very common. Women wore bulky skirts and bustles topped by enormous feathered hats. Men rarely went outside without wearing a suit and a derby or bowler.

The average annual salary for a manufacturing job was $541. That may not sound like much, but in 1903, a postage stamp cost 2 cents, a loaf of bread cost 5 cents and a pound of coffee cost 13 cents.

Sidebar: Elsewhere in the world

While Henry Ford was busy founding the company that would bear his name for 100 years, other momentous events were occurring elsewhere. Here's a brief glimpse at some headlines from the world of business, science, politics, consumer products, sports and entertainment:
  • The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built in Milwaukee by brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson and William Harley.
  • David Dunbar Buick formed Buick Motor Co. in Detroit.
  • Clarence Spicer received a U.S. patent for an "encased universal joint," which quickly became the industry standard for automotive power transmission.
  • The air conditioner was considered to be a new-fangled device. Willis Carrier had just installed the first mechanical cooling system at a printing plant in Brooklyn, NY.
  • The International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union was formed.
  • Stanton Allen and Lynde Bradley received a U.S. patent for a crane controller and formed the Compression Rheostat Co., which eventually became the Allen-Bradley Co.
  • The New York Stock Exchange moved into a new building at 18 Broad St. The trading floor is still in use today.
  • Companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average included American Car & Foundry (a large railroad car builder), Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. and U.S. Leather (one of the largest shoe makers in the world).
  • International Mercantile Marine Co. was formed by financier J.P. Morgan in an attempt to dominate North Atlantic shipping.
  • Two obscure bicycle mechanics from Dayton, OH, tinkered with a "flying machine." On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the world's first heavier-than-air powered flight.
  • Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, received the Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery of radioactivity. It was the first time the Nobel Prize was awarded to a woman.
  • Albert Hanson filed a patent for a "printed" wire. Although not a true printed circuit, Hanson's method produced conductive metal patterns on a dielectric by cutting or stamping copper or brass foil patterns and adhesively bonding them to paraffin paper. It was a forerunner of double-sided through-hole circuitry. The technology was developed for the burgeoning telephone industry, which needed a way to improve exchange equipment.
  • Dutch physiologist Willem Einthoven invented the electrocardiogram.
  • Michael Owens designed the first commercially successful, fully automatic bottle-making machine.

    In Germany, Reinhold Burger filed a patent for a "vacuum flask for keeping liquids hot or cold," which was marketed under the Thermos trademark.

  • The Williamsburg Bridge opened in New York City. It was the world's longest suspension bridge until the 1920s.
  • The Bolshevik Party was started by Vladimir Lenin.
  • The United States and Panama signed a treaty to build the Panama Canal. Construction on the massive project began the following year.
  • On July 4, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a message around the world and back in 1minutes through the use of the newly unveiled underwater Pacific communications cable.
  • The U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor was established.
  • The sufragette movement was started in England by Emmeline Pankhurst.
  • Giuseppe Sarto became Pope Pius X.
  • The first American student received a Rhodes scholarship.
  • The Crayola crayon debuted in 1903. The first box of crayons sold for 5 cents and contained eight colors: black, blue, brown, green, orange, purple, red and yellow.
  • A North Carolina pharmacist named Caleb Bradham was peddling a carbonated soft drink called "Pepsi Cola" that had just received a trademark from the U.S. Patent Office.
  • General Electric began marketing strings of electric Christmas tree lights.
  • Sanka decaffeinated coffee was introduced.
  • The Gillette Co. began to manufacture and advertise a "safety razor" that reduced the imminent danger of cuts. The revolutionary blades cost $5 apiece and only 168 were sold. But, in 1904, more than 123,000 were mass-produced thanks to new equipment for sharpening steel. It reduced the popularity of beards and changed the face of American men.
  • A U.S. patent (#730,918) was issued for "glasses for chickens."
  • The first World Series took place. The Boston Pilgrims—later the Red Sox—beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 5 games to 3 in the best-of-nine series. Pittsburgh was heavily favored, but Boston's pitching staff, led by the legendary Cy Young, was too much for the Pirates.
  • The big spectator sport other than baseball was college football. The 1903 national champion was the University of Michigan, with an 11-0-1 record.
  • The Milwaukee Mile opened at the Wisconsin State Fair Park. The oldest motor speedway in the world is still used for stock car and Indy car racing.
  • Harvard Bowl, the nation's first concrete sports stadium, opened.
  • One of the first international automotive competitions, the Gordon Bennett Trophy race, was held in the Irish countryside. Some historians argue that it was the most famous auto race in history. A 60-hp Mercedes won the 327.5-mile road race with an average speed of 49.2 mph. For better recognition, the cars of individual nations appeared in national racing colors for the first time. The British cars were painted green, German cars white and French cars light blue.
  • The first Tour de France bicycle race was held.
  • The Great Train Robbery debuted as the first feature film. The 10-minute silent movie had a plot—bandits rob a train and are chased by a posse—and was made by editing together scenes to create a coherent narrative. It also included one of the most famous scenes in the early history of movies—a man firing a gun straight into the camera.
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, was first published.
  • Regular radio service between New York and London was established.
  • The circus was in its heyday as a major form of culture and entertainment. Ninety-eight traveling shows—the highest number in U.S. history—crisscrossed the country in 1903, often moving by railroad. In thousands of small towns, "circus day" was a major event—schools and factories shut down—that featured a parade and special sales.
  • Ragtime music was at the height of its popularity.
  • In Chicago, 602 people were killed in the deadliest fire in U.S. history, when the "fire proof" Iroquois Theatre erupted during a matinee performance of a popular musical called Mr. Blue Bird. In the aftermath, sweeping changes were made to national safety standards. For instance, all public buildings had to display "exit" signs and install outward-swinging doors.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the following words debuted in 1903:
  • Chassis.
  • Club sandwich.
  • Gamma ray.
  • Orthodontist.
  • Outmoded.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Rain forest.
  • Speedway.
  • Tractor.
  • Vacuum cleaner.
  • Wireless.