The origin of the automobile: Steam cars

Paul Lines By Paul Lines, 5th Nov 2010 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Transport>Cars

Going back to the beginning of the development of the automobile we find that it was originally propelled by steam

The very beginning

When you watch the kettle come to the boil does it ever occur to you to think, "I can use all that wasted steam to move something." Being very vacant in the technical and inventor mind department I cannot say that such thoughts have ever occurred to me either. However, in 1769 Nicholas Joseph Cugnot, aged 44, was struck by a thought similar to the one that started this article and then set about proving the point.

Cugnot the inventor

I would hazard a guess that at the time of Cugnot's inspiration the kettle was not around, but something that emitted steam obviously caught his attention. Being a learned gentleman, no doubt it occurred to Cugnot that there must be some way of using steam to devise a mode of transport that would replace the much overrated skill of walking, especially for long distances and even the horse, which could be tiresome when it wanted to be. Therefore, he invented the first road vehicle to be self propelling without the aid of human or animal effort.

The birth of the steam car

Strictly, Cugnot's invention was not a steam car. In fact, it was a tractor for use by the military in moving around their artillery. This task it performed at the reliable rate of two and a half miles and hour. However, I have to qualify reliable because that depends upon the driver. Cugnot had some faults in controlling his vehicle, which led him to go down in history as the first person ever to be involved in a road accident when he hit a brick wall in 1771.

Anyway, I digress. Cugnot's steam tractor was the forerunner of the external combustion steam car, which became a very popular mode of transport in the mid to late 1800's. In 1878 Amedee Bollee, built "La Mancelle," which was one of first steam cars to take the shape of automobiles, as we know them today, with a front mounted engine, a passenger compartment and the boiler behind this where the boot is now located.

In the early days of the development of the internal combustion engine, it looked as though the steam car were going to see off this new upstart. The cranking of these new fangled machines was found to be dangerous to limb, so many still preferred the steam automobile versions. The one drawback of the steam car, or not depending on your viewpoint, was that when started it went from 0 to high acceleration immediately.

From heyday to history

In its heyday there were around 84 companies producing steam cars in the US, nearly half of which were located in New England. These included Whites, Crouch, Century and Brooks. However, by the mid 1920's the interest in this mode of transport was beginning to wane as the internal combustion engine was becoming more refined and could better the steam car in terms of speed control, comfort and performance. Although Saab did introduce a steam powered car in the early 1970's in response to the oil crisis, the days of steam were never to be rekindled, despite the obvious benefit to the environment.

The end or not?

Therefore, to date the steam car seems destined to remain a historical memories, with what few remaining models are left only gracing our roads as they travel on historical rally's and to special events. However, as we become increasingly concerned about the rapid depletion of natural oil resources and, in addition, the damage that automobiles cause to the environment, does this provide an opportunity for steam cars to make a comeback? Only the future will tell.


Classic cars: knowing the basics

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Automobiles, Cars, Classic Cars, History, Steam Engines, Veteran

Meet the author

author avatar Paul Lines
Having spent a large part of my working life as a business consultant, I am now a full time freelance writer offering content for on-line and print publishers, as well as focusing on creative writing

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author avatar Jerry Walch
6th Nov 2010 (#)

Good morning Paul. The Stanley Steamer. Now there's a car that I would love to have in my car barn:-))

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author avatar Paul Lines
6th Nov 2010 (#)

You and me both Jerry, but my partner thinks I have to consider practicalities :-)

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author avatar Adiela Augustine
3rd Feb 2012 (#)

this is my data

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