A Brief History of the Automatic Transmission

By Mister Transmission

No more missed shift gates. No engine lugging or racing. No torn-stocking, high-heel clutch-pedaling dramas. None of that. Just press the gas and go.

 

The introduction of the automatic transmission did this by offering a “no-muss, no-fuss” form of shifting. The earliest automobiles offered only manual transmissions, which were similar in principle to today’s stick-shift vehicles. These cars sported two forward gears and one reverse, coupled to the engine via a series of pedals. But as cars grew larger and traffic got worse, engineers began searching for a way to have the car “automatically” shift from one gear to another. Designers spent decades perfecting the modern automatic transmission. Here we offer a brief introduction and overview of the history of the automatic transmission.

The First Automatic Transmissions

The first automatic transmission was invented in 1921 by a Canadian steam engineer, Alfred Horner Munro. Munro designed his device to use compressed air rather than hydraulic fluid so it lacked power and never became sold commercially. General Motors then developed the first automatic transmission using hydraulic fluid in the 1930’s, and introduced the “Hydra-Matic” transmission in 1940.

The 1948 Oldsmobile was the first model to use a true automatic transmission. The Hyrda-Matic, developed by GM engineer, Earl Thompson, was advertised as: “The greatest advance since the self-starter.” The Hydra-Matic went through continual upgrading and refinements through 1955, but the basic design and theory used were consistent throughout its remarkably long life span. General Motors replaced the Hydra-Matic in 1956 with the Jetaway. The “Jet” was not a roaring success and quickly gave way to the Turbo Hydra-Matic in 1969.

The Hydra-Matic Transmission

The original Hydra-Matic transmission was one of the most important innovations in the history of the automobile. It wasn’t the first automatic transmission, but it was the first one that really worked and its resounding commercial success paved the way for every subsequent autoshifter.

The technology came along at an opportune time in history as North America was abundant with victory from World War II and building up steam for the post-war boom. Scads of babies and cars were produced (not necessarily in that order). Into those cars they dropped thousands of automatic transmissions. With its simplicity and ease of use, the automatic transmission offered up the automobile to the masses, fulfilling the promise of President Hoover, whom a generation earlier had promised “a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.” At the very least it widened the perspective of an increasingly mobile workforce, fed the flow of migration to the suburbs, and welcomed women back into the economy following the war effort.

The most significant changes/improvements in automatic transmission design to date are the number of forward gears transmissions now have and the switch from mechanically controlled to electronically controlled transmission operations. Mechanically controlled automatic transmissions have reached their limit in terms of future improvements while electronically (or computer) controlled automatic gearboxes have only touched the surface of the possibilities.

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Frank was very upfront and straight-forward when discussing recommended service without pressure or upselling. After the multi-check was completed, he was able to perform the recommended services (fluid flush/fill and transmission service) immediately. He gladly too time to answer any questions, explained the repairs done and seemed to genuinely appreciate the business. It was my first time to Mister Transmission and I was very impressed!
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Frank Matchett - You fit our vehich
Karen D
Frank Matchett - You fit our vehichle (Toyota Celica) into the Coquitlam Shop so quickly on Monday, June 29th. I am from Kamloops. This was during Canada Day week too. You found a transmission on Vancouver Island and even offered to pick it up yourself if possible. You personally dropped me off and picked me up at the location I was staying at on Port Moody. I so appreciated that kindness. You went above and beyond and kept me, reassured that I would be home on Thursday. My husband was not with me yet you communicated the updates with both him & myself (he was in Kamloops.) You were wonderful with your communication, swiftness in finding the part, I\'m grateful that you fit my car in during this holiday week & your kindness to drop me off & pick me up was so appreciated. So thankful for all that you did Frank Matchett. Sincerely - Mrs. K Devlin
Date: July 3, 2020
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Harold P
Frank and the crew in Coquitlam did a great job and very quickly repaired my Jeep.
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Andrew Ouellette was amazing. Service was booked the next day. dropped the car off at 1pm. Received a call on the work required by 2pm and picked up the car by 4pm. A great service experience!
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