Steam Cars

It is not difficult to see why late nineteenth century inventors gravitated to steam power when they began to play with the idea of replacing the horse as the motive power for the carriage. By that time steam engines were powering factories that heralded prosperity by belching out thick clouds of black smoke. And steam engines were also propelling the railroad trains that put newly manufactured goods from those factories into willing consumers' hands.

By 1889, when Carl Benz and Gottleib Daimler individually put together what many consider the first automobiles, steam had been powering vehicles for decades. In fact, the idea for a steam-powered car dates back all the way to 1665 when a Flemish Jesuit priest named Ferdinand Verbiest drew up plans for a small steam-powered carriage for Chinese Emperor Khang Hsi. There is no record that the car was ever built, but 100 years later a French artillery officer, Nicolas Josef Cugnot, persuaded his superiors to fund his attempt to build a practical steam-powered vehicle for hauling cannons and cannonballs. Moving forward in fits-and-starts, both literally and figuratively, the conveyance did make its lumbering way through the streets of the French countryside, but its limited range (a theme we shall see repeated over and over) meant it wasn't very practical. After Cugnot had the first recorded automobile crash in his invention, the French funding dried up, and Cugnot lapsed back into obscurity.

Fast (if you will pardon the expression) forward another 75 years, and you'll find that steam had become a reasonably reliable method of employing power. By that time James Watt and Richard Trevithick had developed high-pressure steam engines installed in locomotives that could pull strings of cars along railways, and Robert Fulton had installed a steam engine in a riverboat. What remained was to use a steam engine in a vehicle that was compact and maneuverable enough to travel the rudimentary roads of the day. That occurred in Britain in 1825 when Goldsworthy Gurney built a steam-powered carriage (later shortened to "car") that not only ran, but was practical enough to complete an 85-mile trip in just 10 hours.

By the time twin brothers Francis Edgar and Freelan O. Stanley sold their photographic equipment business in 1897 to go into the business of building motorcars, steam was so well-established that it seemed a no-brainer compared to the continued difficulties tinkerers were having with infant gasoline engines. The brothers sold the rights to their first steam car to the Locomobile Company, which then began to produce them in reasonably large numbers. By 1900, steam was the predominant powerplant under American car hoods. That year United States car manufacturers built 1,681 steam cars, 1,575 electric cars, and just 936 gasoline cars. In a poll conducted at the first National Automobile Show in New York City that year, patrons favored electric-

ity as their first choice, followed closely by steam. After seeing how big their idea was get-

brothers set a world brothers set a world ting, the Stanleys jumped back into the car business in 1902, establishing the Stanley Motor Carriage Company. They successfully sold steam cars until land speed record of 127.7 miles per hour during a run at Daytona Beach in 1906. The Stanleys were awarded the prestigious Dewar Trophy for automotive excellence.

about 1920.

There were many reasons to recommend steam as an engine type for early cars. The technology is relatively simple. Water is heated to the boiling point in a closed container (called unimaginatively the "boiler") making steam, and because it is contained within the boiler, the pressure grows as more and more water vaporizes. The high-pressure steam is then directed into a cylinder where it pushes a piston, which, through a linkage, turns a shaft. This shaft, in turn, drives the wheels. One of the several beauties of a steam engine is that it generates a large portion of its power even at very low engine revolutions (the literal rotations of the shaft). This means that, unlike a gasoline-powered car that requires a clutch and series of gears to successfully use the narrow band of power produced by the engine, a steam car channels its power directly to the driving wheels. Add more steam, and you go faster. Lessen the amount of steam going into the engine, and you go slower. Simple. Effective.

The Stanley Brothers extolled the virtues of the direct-drive system and touted steam versus what they referred to as the "internal explosion engine," their term for the internal combustion gasoline engine. At first, their cars also used gasoline as fuel, burning it in a simple "firebox" under the boiler, while later steamers used kerosene. Though their advertising alluded to the dangers of the gasoline engine, the big fear that revolved around a steam car was a boiler explosion. Safety valves that vented dangerous pressure were the simple answer to that potential danger, but the threat was more real than imagined.

So why don't we drive steam cars today? Well, steamers have two major flaws. They take a long time to "start" and they have (you will hear this tune again) limited range. As to the first problem, the Stanleys and others couldn't get past the complication that before a steam car could move it had to, literally, get steam up. In other words, water in the boiler had to be heated like water in a tea kettle until there was enough accumulated steam to begin driving the pistons. This usually took several minutes, so a steamer was a terrible choice as a robber's getaway


Because of its awesome off-the-line power potential, a steam car would make a great drag racing vehicle. Sadly, drag racing came along too late for steamers to show their goods.

The other issue is range. Because they needed steam to move, steam cars required water, and when the water ran out, they were stranded until more water could be added. Later, steamers addressed this issue with "condensers" that would turn the steam back into water, so it could be reused. But steam cars never entirely got past the need for adding water, which limited their range.

In contrast, inventors quickly solved many of the problems associated with gasoline-powered cars, most important among them the necessity to crank-start the engine. With the advent of the self-starter, steam cars' days were numbered, and by 1920, they were, effectively, museum pieces. Private aviation pioneer Bill Lear tried to revive steam cars in the 1960s and 1970s, but his concepts never got past the prototype stages.

Those automotive pioneers who didn't gravitate toward steam power found electricity an appealing alternative. After Benjamin Franklin's research into the properties of electricity in the eighteenth century, progress in the field moved forward very rapidly with the discovery of galvanic cells by Luigi Galvani around 1786. Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta moved that research still further, and he is often credited with the invention of the electric battery. By 1835, experiments conducted by John Frederic Daniell and Michael Faraday had resulted in much improved batteries and rudimentary electric motors that could be powered by them.

Drawing on the progress being made, in 1839, Scotsman Robert _

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