Disc brakes were invented in 1889 by Elmer Ambrose Sperry, an American inventor and entrepreneur. William Lanchester improved and patented the design in 1902, but it was not until the 1950s that disc brakes became popular and eventually standard on most passenger vehicles.
Disc brakes have a lengthy history of trial and error, and the brakes that exist today are the products of necessity. As cars evolved, the brakes needed to change to follow. This article explores the answers to “when were disc brakes invented” and many other questions about their history.
Early Development of Disc Brakes
The earliest development of disc brakes predates their patent period, going back to England in 1889. Elmer Ambrose Sperry used front wheel disc brakes on a small electric car creation of his.
These brakes were built by Cleveland Machine Screw Co. and worked similarly to bicycle brakes that use pressure on the wheel to stop the vehicle.
While this design functioned, it left plenty of room for improvement, and other inventors did not hesitate to take on the challenge.
The First Patented Disc Brakes
Frederick William Lanchester patented the first caliper style disc brakes in 1902. A Birmingham factory manufactured the fresh developments, and the brakes were later used on Lanchester cars with decent success.
These original disc brakes set a great foundation, but they were not without fault. Lanchester worked with limited metal choices at this time, and he used copper as the braking medium that pressed on the disc.
The softer metal wore down quickly from repeated use, and poorly developed roads did nothing to preserve the disc brakes. The metal-on-metal action let loose an awful screeching noise that diminished the power of the brakes.
Five years after this, British inventor Herbert Frood developed the earliest version of brake pads. By lining the pads with long-lasting asbestos, the brakes could now press on the disc with minimal wear and less noise.
These asbestos pads lasted until the 1980s when health concerns reformed the materials used.
World War II and Disc Brake Development
American cars already needed a new brake solution before the war, and inventors and engineers started work with internal and expanding disc brakes shortly after the patented version surfaced.
World War II disrupted this endeavor, and research efforts shifted to develop hydraulic operated caliper-type disc brakes for aircrafts. These developments were used to streamline and secure many larger vehicles, including:
- Passenger trains
It was not until the war dissipated that focus returned to developing disc brakes for passenger vehicles.
After the war ended, Dunlop, a major producer of disc brakes for aeronautical vehicles, adapted their technology to apply to vehicles on the road.
In 1953, the Jaguar C type racer was the first car fitted with Dunlop disc brakes. After this, the Citroën DS became the first sustained mass production vehicle using disc brakes.
By 1955, most cars featured caliper-type font disc brakes. These were mounted inboard, closer to the transmission, and they were powered by the central hydraulic system of the vehicle. The Citroën DS sold over 1.5 million units in 20 years with that exact setup.
Most of the disc brake development revolved around sports cars that begged for higher brake performance. This started with a focus in Europe as vehicle weight and speed increased, and hydraulic brakes lost their ability to distribute heat efficiently.
The Chrysler Braking System
From 1949 to 1953 Chrysler used a unique disc braking system that expanded outward instead of squeezing on the disc with calipers. The Chrysler braking system used twin expanding discs to rub against the inside of a cast iron brake drum. The drum doubled as the brake housing, and the system was more than sufficient for stopping vehicles.
The Chrysler system had its faults. While this was standard on a few vehicles, the expanding brakes were only an option on other vehicles. They could jump a price another $400, a sizable amount considering the retail value for a whole Crosley Hot Shot sat at $935.
The Chrysler system used a four-wheel self energizing disc brake system that augmented braking energy and reduced heat. It allowed lighter braking pressure than caliper systems and reduced brake fade, but the cost was a dark mark on this type of disc brakes.
Mass Production of Disc Brakes
Some vehicle models that paved the way for mass production of disc brakes include:
- Jensen 541
- Triumph TR3
- Studebaker Avanti
- Rambler Marlin
- Ford Thunderbird
- Lincoln Continental
Some of these vehicles were fitted with four-wheel disc brakes, while others found that two disc brakes in the front proved sufficient for stopping the vehicle.
Disc Brakes on Motorcycles
The first motorcycles to offer disc brakes were also racing vehicles. It was not until 1965 that motorcycle disc brakes made it to the public, but the expensive touring MV Agusta still sat out of reach for many.
In 1969 Honda fitted the CB750 with a single hydraulically actuated disc brake on the front, and the cheaper vehicle performed well. The popularity paved the way for motorcycles, mopeds, and mountain bikes to move forward to disc brake systems.
Disc Brakes Today
The disc brakes seen today directly result from manufacturers worldwide shifting toward them in the 1960s, including:
- Laconia (Italy)
- Mercedes-Benz (Germany)
- Renault (France)
- Nissan (Japan)
- Volvo (Sweden)
Modern disc brakes are not too far removed from early models. They slow the rotation of the vehicle axle or hold it in place using calipers to squeeze pads against a disc. Most disc brakes are hydraulically actuated, and they have had no trouble keeping up with automobile advances.
They continue to improve, finding ways to last longer and facilitate faster braking times for optimal safety and control.
The question “when were disc brakes invented” digs deep into the history of one of the most important safety advancements for modern motor vehicles.
Without the initial development in 1889 and the desire to improve, cars would not have the same size and speed capabilities available today.