Aug 25, 2013

From steam boats, to steam locomotives, to steam tractors and more, steam was adapted to every type, shape and form of vehicle imaginable.

More Than a Century of Steam

Cugnot invents the first automobile in 1769 [Fig. 1]

Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot made the first automobile in 1769 by replacing the power of the horse with a steam boiler and a steam engine. The steam engine powered the front wheel of this large three-wheeled carriage. It was designed to move cannons for the military and traveled at a little over 2 miles per hour. By 1771 Cugnot evolved the vehicle to carry four passengers. This vehicle is not counted in many annals of history as the first automobile. "Historians, who accept that early steam-powered road vehicles were automobiles, feel that Nicolas Cugnot was the inventor of the first automobile."[1] I think that it is interesting that at later dates in history many of the historians who do not count Cugnot's invention as being the first automobile seem to have no trouble viewing the Stanley Steamer and other popular steam powered vehicles as automobiles. It is important to note that there is more than a century between the date that Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot's invented his artillery moving vehicles and the first combining of the gasoline powered internal combustion engine with a cart in 1886, the date often used as the invention of the first automobile. As you will see, there was a lot of inventing and use of other fuels in automobiles that occurred in the intervening years.

As time moves forward improvements to the steam engine and the rise of inventive people to put the power of steam to new industrial uses grows. Steam powered vehicles dominated every industry and every mode of transportation from the 1700s into the early 1900s. From steam boats, to steam locomotives, to steam tractors, steam shovels, steamrollers, steam haulers and more, steam was adapted to every type, shape and form of vehicle imaginable.

Oliver Evans's amphibious digger. [Fig.2]

It was an American who first transformed the steam engine from its low pressure period to a new era where high-pressure steam was used. That inventor was the Delaware born Oliver Evans. In 1789 he was issued a patent for his “Orukter Amphibolos,” an amphibious digger, which used his high pressure engine. Evans manufactured the vehicle in 1804 for Philadelphia's Board of Health and drove it overland and by water to dredge at the docks in Philadelphia. [2]

At about the same time British inventor Richard Trevithick produced his "Puffing Devil," or "Puffer," which also used high-pressure steam. On Christmas Eve in 1801 he drove his Puffer down his street in Cornwall, England carrying all of the onlookers that could fit on it. Unfortunately, the Puffer was destroyed a few days later when it overheated and caught fire. His next venture was a rail locomotive that was too heavy and crushed its iron rails. In 1808 he ventured into amusement rides with a locomotive that went around Torrington Square in London named “Catch-me-who-can.” It to crushed its tracks. He never was able to make a success out of his inventions, however, the high-pressure steam engine he invented lived on. [3]

Steam engines often were heavy and temperamental, and typically accompanied by a cadre of technicians and caretakers. The roads between cities in the United States were typically parallel dirt paths big enough to accommodate a wagon. In England there were turnpikes, which were toll roads maintained by a trust, and there were common roads not hindered by tolls, however, the common roads between cities were much like those in America, just dirt paths. Early steam carriages and train like hauler road locomotives seemed too heavy and too temperamental to work in the mud, snow and often rocky terrain of the common roads typically traveled by horses and wagons of the day. In fact those conditions were even difficult for horses and wagons to travel through. One solution was to have well maintained toll turnpikes. Another solution to the problem was to somehow build hard roads as were used in mines to carry coal out of the ground. By the middle 1500s a solution of wooden roads called "wagonways," began to emerge to help horse drawn carriages and wagons travel without having to struggle through the conditions of the dirt country roads. By 1776 the wood of the wagonways was replaced by iron and a new name was given to them, "tramways." In 1789 Englishman, William Jessup designed a flanged wheel with a groove that fit over an iron rail for the tramways. In 1803 Samuel Homfray funded Richard Trevithick's development of a steam-powered vehicle for the tramways, and with that the railroad, as we know it, was born. [4]

Because of the phenomenal success of steam-power combined with railroads, many of us think of steam-powered vehicles as being only trains used on railroads, however, if you have some years of life behind you, you might remember or remember reading about steam shovels and steamrollers. The terms may still be in our vocabulary today, however, what has replaced these "steamrollers" and "steam shovels" are no longer powered by steam. If steam shovels and steamrollers survived well into the middle of the 20th century, what other vehicles may have existed after Cugnot's invention that were powered by steam?

After Cugnot's invention, steam vehicles entered into a period of great experimentation. William Murdock, an employee of James Watt, the man largely attributed with the invention of the working steam engine, builds a working miniature model of a steam carriage in 1784. Oddly, James Watt was said to have discouraged William Murdock from pursuing his invention or patenting it. In 1821 Julius Grigffiths of Brompton patents the first steam carriage and Joseph Bramah constructs for Grigffiths a full size version of it. It is said to be the first steam carriage made to carry passengers on regular roads. The vehicle is tested in Bramah's yard, but never sees commercial use. In 1829 inventor William James drives one of his numerous iterations of steam-powered wagons through the streets of New York City. [5] In the publication History and Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads [1881], William Fletcher describes hundreds of patents, inventions, attempts and successes in bringing steam carriages to common use. [6] Truly functional steam carriages begin entering the marketplace around 1830.

One of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney's designs [Fig.3]

In the 1830s steam carriages and steam road locomotives reach a period where they are being successfully applied. Services between the cities begin to get established in England and Scotland. Many of the most successful applications are using steam carriage designs by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney in England. Sir Charles Dance, using a Gurney design, drawing both a coach carriage and a multi passenger omnibus behind, establishes a regular route between the cities of Gloucester and Cheltenham in 1830. His steam carriages could make the nine-mile run in 45 to 55 minutes. When word gets out about Dance's success, Parliament passes fifty-one private bills raising the tolls excessively on steam carriages and road locomotives traveling on turnpikes in 1831. These tolls, administered by the Turnpike Trusts that managed approximately 30,000 miles of roads in England and Wales and operated nearly 8,000 toll-gates spelled the end of these early steam carriages and road locomotives. [7] The prohibitive price of the new tolls destroyed any possible return these new steam carriage lines could make from their operations. Though innovations continue for steam carriages and the like until the end of the decade, from 1840 to 1857 innovations seem to stop. There are no records that William Fletcher or I could find of innovations during this time.

For many years steam carriages and common road locomotives made little headway under the oppressive rules placed upon them. The failure of road locomotives to enter the marketplace and stay during this early time period was do to legislation designed to kill the industry. That legislation also had a dampening effect on American inventors and other innovators around the world. One example of this dampening effect was Mr. J. K. Fisher from New York who, in the 1850s, attempted to bring a lightweight steam carriage to market that incorporated many improvements. Even though his steam carriage was considered an engineering success he was discouraged from going forward with his steam carriage innovation by his fellow engineers who sighted the troubles that occurred in England.

In 1857 innovation in steam carriages begins again as steam carriage inventors engineer around the toll prohibitive turnpikes and make steam vehicles that can travel fast on the unrestricted common roads. Innovations such as lighter construction, differentials, four wheel independently sprung suspensions, steering of the front and rear wheels to improve maneuverability around objects and complete iron and steel construction to make the vehicles durable in rough terrain made it possible for steam-powered vehicles to use common rather than the toll roads.

Richard Tangye's elegant steam vehicle named "Cornubia" [Fig.4]

One of the best examples of what was occurring at this time was the vehicle constructed by Richard Tangye, of Birmingham, England in 1862. His vehicle pictured above was simple in its construction requiring fewer parts, which meant fewer parts to fail. Most of the operational controls where accessible by the driver so that one person could operate the vehicle for maneuvering and parking. To go longer distances the vehicle needed another person to tend the boiler and firebox. It could hold up to 12 people including the driver and the boiler attendant. The vehicle also sported many innovations that added comfort for the passengers, such as its water holding tank was placed between the boiler and the passengers and was made in such a way as to shield the passengers from the heat of the firebox and the boiler, there was a mechanism that used steam to add air above the fire that reduced the development of smoke. Its steam was sent through the smoke box in a coil to dry it so when it exited it wouldn't billow clouds of white. Its wheels were fully sprung giving it a smooth ride over rough terrain. The vehicle was only 16 feet long and 5 feet 9 inches wide, similar to what passenger cars are today. When fully loaded with coal and water it had a driving range of 20 miles, and its top speed was twenty miles an hour, which was very fast for those days. With Mr. Tangye's vehicle we begin to see the emergence of something closer to what we think of as an automobile.

As the railroads grew in popularity Mr. Tangye saw an opportunity to create feeder routes to the railway stations using his vehicle, but his efforts were thwarted by new laws called the "Locomotive Acts." As Mr. Tangye put it, "...the trade in quick speed locomotives strangled in its cradle...."[6]

The Locomotive acts were laws passed by Parliament in the United Kingdom that restricted the movement and operation of road carriages and road locomotives. Two of the laws were, the "Locomotive Act 1861" and the "Locomotive Act 1865," which is also known as the "Red Flag Act." With the first Locomotive Act of 1861 Parliament limits road locomotive’s top speed to ten miles an hour and 5 miles an hour in cities and towns. There were restrictions for weight, road locomotives were not allowed to traverse suspension bridges, they were not allowed to emit smoke, which was nearly impossible and two people were required to operate the road locomotive whether it needed two people to operate it or not. In the Locomotive Act of 1865 restrictions were expanded to reduce speed limits to 2 miles per hour in cities and 4 miles per hour in the country. Where the act gets its name as the “Red Flag Act” is that the law also required that a man carrying a red flag precede the vehicle while traveling. The 1865 law also gave local authorities the power to regulate the times when vehicles like steam carriages and road locomotives could operate. [8][9]

Steam engines were used for a variety of work for various industries, but the need for them on the farm to operate threshing machines to separate the grains from their stalks, to operate flour-mills, to pump water and more, required a portable steam engine. For years these machines were moved from location to location pulled by horses. Thomas Aveling saw this and thought that this was absurd since the power of the machines being pulled were many times the power of the horses that were used to pull them. He says it was like "watching six sailing vessels towing a steamer." In 1858 he attached a chain from the flywheel to a cog on the rear wheel of a portable steam engine and reduced the number of horses to move the machine to one, the horse used mainly for steering. In 1860 he added steering with the steersman sitting on-board operating a tiller to turn the wheels. In essence the first automobile operated by one driver. By 1862 he partnered with Richard Porter and formed the company Aveling & Porter. In the new company and with new capital Aveling was able to evolve his invention into what he patented as a "...Locomotive Engine for Threshing, Ploughing and General Traction," in essence the first iteration of what we know as a farm tractor. In 1865 Aveling & Porter also went on to produce steamrollers. [10]

La Rapide ("Rapid") built in 1881 in Le Mans [Fig.5]

Free from the restrictions in Britain, the French begin to emerge with viable steam road vehicles in the 1870s. In 1873 Amedee-Ernest Bollee begins producing steam vehicles in Le Mans, France. His vehicles are immediately high quality, fast and long ranging. In 1878 Bollee puts his “Mancelle” into production, the first vehicle to be produced in series. He makes 50 La Mancelles in his production run. The vehicle features rear-wheel drive and four wheel independent suspension. In 1881 Bollee produced “La Rapide.” La Rapide is a vehicle that could reach speeds of 39 miles per hour (62 km/h) and had its boiler, engine and controls together by the driver so that one person could operate it. [11]

La Rapide is clearly an automobile in much the same way that the first internal combustion vehicles were automobiles. Even if you were to discount all other steam vehicles that preceded La Rapide because one person alone could not operate them, La Rapide fits all the criteria for an automobile that would match what Karl Benz’s and Gottlieb Daimler’s vehicles could do. That means at a minimum the automobile, Bollee’s La Rapide powered by steam, predates the internal combustion engine vehicles of Benz and Daimler by five years. That may hold true if steam-powered vehicles were the only vehicles in play in 1881. We will explore other forms of propulsion of automobiles further into this study.

At this point in history automobiles begin to face competition from various other forms of propulsion. This period of high competition between various propulsion systems will be explored separately since it speaks to market establishment and the economics of competition. Until the era of competing fuels, steam competed with no one other than regulators and the horse.

It is relatively easy to see that it was regulation and the psychology surrounding those rules, and not the abilities of the steam-powered carriage and road locomotive that held steam-powered vehicles back from establishing themselves in the marketplace. Dances and Tangye had clearly established that these steam automobiles functioned and if left to their own devices would have held a place in the market. Instead, a conservative desire to not advance technologically over the horse took hold for road transportation. The rules did their damage, but more than that the rules created a psychological mindset against steam-powered road vehicles. One example of how the psychology took hold in Great Britain was that turnpike road crews, whether by order or out or their own initiative, put down 18 inches of loose gravel in front of Charles Dance’s steam road locomotives when he managed to pay the nearly prohibitive tolls placed upon the operation of his vehicles. That gravel, given the weight of his vehicles, was designed to stop his vehicles from moving on the roads and they did. Instances like these occurred in Scotland as well. These artificial barriers to entering the marketplace were insurmountable. In the end the tolls and mounting rules imposed in Great Britain on steam road vehicles destroyed the momentum of steam automobile innovation that it needed for it to enter and hold in the marketplace before the emergence of the internal combustion engine vehicle.

From what I see, if the turnpike tolls and the Locomotive acts were not put in place, road steam vehicles would have become a reality much sooner and evolved much quicker into forms that we recognize as automobiles today. Given the advantage of time in the marketplace, I believe that the internal combustion engine would have had a harder time trying to dislodge steam vehicles for market share. Depending on how much advancement may have been made, steam-powered vehicles could have overcome all of their shortcomings prior to the introduction of the internal combustion engine. However, since, as Richard Tangye put it the vehicles were strangled in their cradle, we will never know what could have been.

(VIDEO) Click above to watch a near exact replica from the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum of Cugnot's steam-powered vehicle moving.

[1] Bellis, Mary, The history of the Automobile, Early Steam Powered Cars, About.com (Accessed April 29, 2004)
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[2] Bellis, Mary, Oliver Evans, High-pressure steam engine, Oruktor Amphibolis, mill & textile equipment, About.com (Accessed August 18, 2013)
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[3] This Day In History, Dec 24, 1801: Richard Trevithick introduces his "Puffing Devil" History.com (Accessed August 17, 2013)
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[4] Bellis, Mary, The History of Railroad Innovations, Outline of Railroad History, About.com (Accessed August 18, 2013)
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[5] Building America, The history and development of the automobile and how it helped shape America, Hemmings.com (Accessed August 18, 2013)
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[6] History and Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads By William Fletcher Published by E. & F.N. Spon/S. H. Cowell, 1881 London New York
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[7] Who Really Invented the Automobile? By David Beasley Copyright 1997 Davus Publishing Simcoe, Ontario, Canada
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[8] History of steam road vehicles, Wikipedia.org (Accessed August 10, 2013)
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[9] Locomotive Act 1861, legislation.gov.uk(Accessed August 21, 2013)
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[10] Aveling and Porter, Wikipedia.org (Accessed August 18, 2013)
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[11] Amedee Bollee, Wikipedia.org (Accessed August 18, 2013)
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[Fig. 1] The International Scientific Series. Volume XXIV, A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine. By Robert H Thurston, A.M., C. E., Second Revised Edition - D. Appleton and Company Published 1886
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[Fig. 2] The International Scientific Series. Volume XXIV, A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine. By Robert H Thurston, A.M., C. E., Second Revised Edition - D. Appleton and Company Published 1886
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[Fig. 3] The International Scientific Series. Volume XXIV, A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine. By Robert H Thurston, A.M., C. E., Second Revised Edition - D. Appleton and Company Published 1886
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[Fig. 4] History and Development of Steam Locomotion on Common Roads By William Fletcher Published by E. & F.N. Spon/S. H. Cowell, 1881 London New York Figure 62 Page 166
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[Fig. 5] Antiquites brocante de la tour, Documentations histoire et archives du passe, les collections, histoire et usage de choses et objets anciens varies de la vie d'autrefois ayant attrait au passe.
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Timeline of steam power, Wikipedia.org (Accessed August 15, 2013)

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