Water and fire. These are the ingredients of one of the simplest power recipes that mankind has ever devised. Use the fire to heat the water to a boil.
Wrap enough equipment around the entire arrangement to contain it, and channel the resulting steam. See that the expanding steam pushes something. You have an engine!
Hero of Alexandria tried this in the year 2 B.C. and ended up with a simple rotating sphere. In the early eighteenth century James Watt improved on some two thousand years of steam experimenting and perfected a workable steam engine.
In 1896 the Stanley brothers put a steam engine in a car and created a legend. But they were not the first, not by over a hundred years. Their car was, in a sense, the last of a species, a final flowering like the last dinosaur, extinct but not forgotten.
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 vehicle.
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 steam buses.
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 business again.
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.