Who Invented The Automatic Gearbox?

The question of who invented the automatic gearbox has a number of potential answers with competing claims as to who holds the distinction.

There are the early prototypes that hinted at a solution. There is the first patented version of an automatic gearbox – this would seem a good answer if only the gearbox wasn’t so unrecognisable from what we see nowadays.

Finally, there is the development of an automatic gearbox that came to define all future such units.

As with so many major developments, the invention did not happen in isolation, an inventor suddenly unveiling their finished product, a product so perfect that it then became the standard for decades more.

Let’s start the ignition and see where the joinery takes us as we try to answer that question – just who did invent the automatic gearbox?

Perhaps a key subtlety to consider is what we mean by the first automatic gearbox, is it the first project that could in any way be called an automatic gearbox or is it the first automatic gearbox you could look at and see a clear link with modern units?

In France, Louis-Rene Panhard and Emile Levassor developed what they thought was a form of automatic transmission, but when they attempted to run a demonstration in 1894 the unit broke. They ended up talking through the theory of how it might work via a chalkboard demonstration.

Good in theory…

All the way over in Boston, USA, the Sturtevant brothers were busy working on a two-speed automatic transmission that used centrifugal weights, these activated by the speed of the engine and automatically deactivating a clutch.

It was a great idea in theory, less so in practice. Its was a little more reliable than the Panhard-Levassor invention, but let’s just say you wouldn’t want to set off on a journey in any vehicle using the Sturtevant transmission without having a good supply of items to use in case of a breakdown.

Jumping forward to the 1920s, we find a genuine claimant to the title of being the inventor of the first automatic gearbox. Canadian Alfred Horner Munro ended up with the patent to back-up his claim, a Canadian patent in 1923 followed by similar in the UK (1924) and United States (1927).

Munro’s invention utilised a compressed air based system for the transmission, the problem is, for all the patents and the undeniable skill of the invention, it lacked power and was not practical.

Our trip around the globe next takes in Brazil and here we have genuine contenders for the title. José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lehly Lemos came up with the idea (or at least have the established claim) of using hydraulic pressure to handle shifts.

They didn’t produce the clear forerunner of modern gearboxes, but it was their ideas and prototypes  that got sold to General Motors and would lead to what we would see as a recognisable automatics transmission.

Good enough for tanks…

At General Motors, they developed the Hydramatic system in 1932 ands this would go on to become popular in the 1940s.

The system used a flood coupling to transfer power and had four forward speeds and one in reverse. Manufacture of the unit for cars was halted as GM’s efforts went into the war effort, but the fact that the transmissions were then used in tanks made for a wonderful marketing opportunity. The system was ‘battled hardened’. The argument went that if it’s good enough or tanks in wars, it should be fine for a car on a road.

The system’s reliability is also shown by the fact that Rolls Royce licensed a version and used it in their cars for many years.

So, who did invent the automatic gearbox? GM produced the units that were finished, usable automatic gearboxes, but their work was built on the findings and developments of José Braz Araripe and Fernando Lehly Lemos. They feel like the key pair, they advanced automatic gearboxes to a point there there was the basis for a powerful, functional unit rather than something that simply had theoretical interest.

Modern Gearboxes:

At North West Transmissions, we don’t see too many gearboxes from the 1940s come in for repairs (we’d happily take the job on though!).

What we do facilitate is the repair or replacement of gearboxes with guaranteed refurbished units.

A family-run business, we have a truly superb reputation, this shown by our 4.9 out of 5 average rating from dozens of reviews on Google.

All reconditioned gearbxes come with guarantees for 12 months or 12,000 miles while reconditioned automatic units come with a re-manufactured torque converter that has a lifetime guarantee.

Our technicians are all highly skilled with vast experience in reconditioning and repairing all units – importantly their efficiency helps cut down the price of repairs and so too the cost.

Gearbox problems are all-too common. If you find yourself in need of a repair or reconditioned unit, that often being the more economical option in the long term, please contact us.

Call us on 0151 933 0257 or use our Contact Form.