The steam engine was
mankind's first truly independent power source. If the sun was
cloud-hidden; if the winds ceased blowing; if the rivers ran dry;
human beings could still light a fire and make wheels turn. With
the ability to make a wheel turn at will, mankind made the first
and most significant step toward the development of an independent
The first completely
self-powered vehicle to run on a road appeared in France in 1769.
Actually the first car! Called a "Road Wagon" by its builder,
Nicholas Cugnot, it had three wheels and a huge pressure boiler
hanging out in front. It was heavy and clumsy, but it moved. It
moved at the astounding speed of 2 1/2 miles per hour and could
run a distance of perhaps one hundred feet before stopping to
generate more steam. Fascinated by the possibilities, inventors in
several countries built steam-driven vehicles.
In America, Nathan Reed of
Massachusetts designed a steam car. That was 1790. In 1804 the
first amphibian, a steam river dredge with wheels, was built. The
first steam car built for sale to the general public was
manufactured by Sylvester Roper in 1860. Stop to think and you
will realize that it was before the Civil War. Roper was followed
by Richard Dudgeon and the Carhart brothers and a whole team of
American inventors who saw the possibilities of steam.
In France, Bollee and De Dion
headed a list of Gallic experimenters, but it was the British who
first came up with a practical road vehicle. Richard Trevithick
produced a massive (about eight tons!) machine in 1803 which
created a sensation. One after another, British engineering firms
built various types of steam cars and buses. Bus service between
cities flourished. Some buses carried twenty-two passengers and
made four trips a day. These monsters were called road
locomotives, and must have been an impressive sight on the quiet
English roads. Some of them resembled huge stagecoaches with the
addition of a smokestack. One even attained the speed of 9 mph.
But in 1865 Parliament passed
the Red Flag Law. The owners of horse-drawn bus lines and
railroads realized that transport on the roads by a self-powered
vehicle could mean financial disaster for them. Their lobby was
successful. From 1865 on, a self-powered machine on a highway was
required to drive at speed of no more than 3 mph, with a man
carrying a red flag walking in front. This was the end of the
With no such inhibiting law
in America, many engineers experimented with steam cars. The most
successful were the Stanley brothers. In 1896 they gave up a
photographic plate company to build a steamer. For its time it was
amazing. But even more amazing were the brothers themselves.
Identical twins, they dressed alike and even trimmed their beards
alike. Although they refused to advertise their car, their mirror
image appearance was more than sufficient to publicize it. Stanley
was actually the first really successful automobile corporation in
America. By 1899 the business was flourishing and the brothers
sold it to Locomobile. But instead of retiring, they built another
model, were sued by Locomobile, redesigned the car, and went into
Like many other car makers,
the Stanley brothers proved their product by racing tests. It was
a good product. It was phenomenally fast. It was dependable. As a
matter of fact, the engineers of that time predicted that the car
of the future would be steam driven.
The first great triumph of
the Stanley Steamer came in 1906. A car with a strange body
appeared at Daytona Beach, Florida, in January of that year. It
looked like a small boat with a prow front and rear. Actually this
was an early attempt at streamlining. The slender, highwheeled
vehicle flashed across the sands at a little over 127 mph, setting
a new land speed record. It was a great record. Darracq had held
the previous record with a speed of 109 mph, made in 1905. Stanley
held the record until 1910, when Barney Oldfield drove a Benz only
four miles per hour faster.
Stirred by their success, the
Stanley brothers returned in 1906 with the same car. They were set
for an all-out effort. They tuned the car to a fine edge, and ran
the boiler pressure up to an astronomical figure. With Fred
Marriott, who had driven the previous year, at the wheel, the
machine started down the beach. The speed increased steadily 150,
160, and still climbing. The speedometer now read 197, and the
needle showed no sign of easing down. Suddenly the car hit a
slight bump, and Nature's laws of aerodynamics took over. The
bottom of the car was completely smooth, in fact it functioned as
a wing. Marriott and the Stanley became airborne! For about 100
feet the car really flew. Then it landed. A crumpled wreck and a
badly injured driver were the result. The speed was necessarily
unofficial, but it was not until 1927 that a record car exceeded
the pace of that famous run 197 mph, back in 1906!
The Stanley's kept building.
They produced many passenger models, which sold quite well to the
American public. In 1917, they retired and sold the company, but
the Stanley Steamer was not discontinued until 1925.
What happened to the steam
car? Other companies made them successfully. There was a White, a
MacDonald, a Detroit, a Coats, which lasted into the twenties, and
the Doble was built until the early thirties. The steamer was
cheap to operate and simple to drive, with very little to get out
of order. Acceleration was amazing and the power was tremendous.
It was a silent, smooth-running machine which needed only water
and anything that could burn.
But there were shortcomings.
It sometimes took as much as a half-hour to get enough boiler
pressure to start. There were all kinds of valves to set and keep
clean. The cars needed a great amount of water, and filling
stations were few and far between. Although gearing and
transmission were ridiculously simple, the cars sometimes had a
habit of dropping into reverse by themselves. This was
embarrassing, especially when traffic was following and the
steamer reversed, taking off at full speed backwards. In addition,
many old wives' tales circulated. They told of explosions and fire
hazard. The final blow was the development of the self-starter for
the gasoline engine.
There is no doubt that modern
engineers could design a steam car that would conquer the
objections. But it is too late. The internal combustion engine is
the ruler of the roads and the steam car is a thing of the past.