The Roots of Progress

Early cars: gas, electric & steam

November 17, 2018

Another very interesting bit from Energy: A Human History concerns early automobiles.

The history of steam engines is in part a history of miniaturization. The original Newcomen engine was enormous: it had to be housed in a small building of its own and was most decidedly stationary. Watt’s improved engine, with the higher efficiencies from its separate condenser, could be made smaller, but was still (I think) too large to be used for any sort of practical vehicle. The next step was high-pressure engines, which could be made smaller and more efficient. It is these type of engines, I believe, that drove locomotives and steamboats.

Trains and boats are still relatively large, however. So I had assumed that the reason we waited until the 20th century for a practical automobile was that we needed the internal combustion engine.

It turns out I was wrong. Circa 1900, many people saw the need for a “horseless carriage” and many different models were tried. In addition to internal combustion designs, there were also steam cars, and even electric ones. The steam and ICE models used a variety of fuels, including gasoline, kerosene, alcohol, and mixtures thereof.

Why did the ICE win? This is still unclear to me. Electric cars were not practical as general-purpose machines, because they were low-power and slow to recharge (battery technology was still primitive) and because there was no electrical infrastructure outside cities—the cars could not be recharged out in the country. Fuel oil, however, was more widely available, since it was used for heating, lighting, and stationary motors.

But I’m less sure about steam cars. The book mentions that some early steam car models were extremely complex to operate, but I’m not sure if this was true of all models, and I see no fundamental reason why steam cars couldn’t have been simplified. It also mentions that a steam car could be slow to start, taking ten minutes to build up a full head of steam, which would certainly disadvantage it; but then it says that this was fixed with the introduction of a pilot light—however, that seems like it would waste fuel.

Finally, it mentions that early designs vented steam into the air, which required them to take on water every 20 to 30 miles. This was possible at watering troughs for horses (a great example of new technology bootstrapping on old infrastructure!) until in 1914 “an epidemic of deadly hoof-and-mouth disease among New England farm animals led veterinary officials to shut down the many public watering troughs along eastern roads where steamers had rewatered.” In response, though, at least one major steam car manufacturer developed a recondensing model that kept its water. Perhaps it was just too little too late, and/or unlucky timing at a tipping point in technology and infrastructure: at the time, the number of cars in the US was growing exponentially at about 46%/year (according to data from the US Federal Highway Administration).

But I don’t feel that I have the full story, and I’d like to understand whether the internal combustion automobile was a random path, or whether it was driven by more fundamental considerations. Given that steam engines have disappeared from daily life—remaining in the modern industrial world only as dynamos in large, centralized power plants—I feel there is probably a fundamental reason.

Relevant books

Energy: A Human History