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Selected Writings on the Choice of the Spark Ignition Engine
To Power Automobiles To provide background for the discussion, findings, and conclusions of the preceding section of this report, a selection of writings has been chosen to portray the industry in its formative days and to give the historian's perspective.
The development of the automobile was accompanied by a prodigious amount of literature describing all aspects of its innovation. Virtually every sort of journal observed the development of this new transportation mode and commented on its implications. By 1900 several trade journals had appeared, including some which evolved from bicycle magazines. Doubtless the very size and diversity of this literature best indicates the ferment of this period as the automobile was emerging as the replacement for the horse.
Existing histories miss much of this ferment. There are descriptions of the evolution of the machine, analyses of the business, and nostalgic reminders of the past. But the excitement that led to the formation and dissolution of dozens of companies to manufacture automobiles of all types and styles is largely lost. Nevertheless, they provide useful perspective. The selected writings fall into four categories:
1. The first selection identifies the birth of the automobile: The great race of 1895.
2. The second category includes writings of the period 19001905. It was during this time that the choice of engine was made. In 1900, the choice was still open; by 1905 the spark ignition engine was dominating the market, although it was still possible that electric and steam cars would maintain a portion of the market.
3. The third group includes two articles on the spark ignition engine's fuel. By 1909 the success of the spark ignition engine and new performance requirements were imposing overwhelming demands on the quantity and quality of available gasoline. The direction of innovation was to improve the fuel situation, not to change the engine.
4. Two historical accounts, one concerning the gasoline engine, the other steam, make up the fourth part. These articles add the
advantages of hindsight to the contemporary writings. While these articles are highly diversified and sometimes disagree in their evaluations of what was happening, certain common themes appear in many of them.
First, the articles suggest that in the United States in 1900, electric, steam, and gasoline engines were each viable alternatives. The willingness of entrepreneurs to invest in any one—or more than one, like E. C. Stearns-is testimony to the potential each engino possessed. The
electric was generally described as the most "perfected” automobile, but its short range and battery weight were seen as severe limitations. Steam engines were well developed, but on automobiles involved frequent stops for water and had poorer fuel economy than gasoline. Gasoline automobiles were the least well developed, had numerous problems—including noise, vibrations, and odor-but were more efficient than steam.
Second, several of the articles—for example, the ones by Krarup, Burnett, and Hanchett—seem to assume that because the gasoline engine was the least developed, its potential had to be the best. It appears that the disadvantages of the spark ignition engine were commonly seen as challenges, while the disadvantages of the electric and the steam automobiles were often seen as fixed, although the work of Edison on batteries and of Serpollet on steam powered automobiles showed that the potential for new developments on these alternatives existed and was being explored.
Third, innovations on electric and steam powered vehicles tended to lag behind those of gasoline autos. Articles frequently commented on this lag, especially in the development of the steam automobiles, for example the Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal editorial. Sereral authors like Wherry saw this lag resulting from entrepreneurial conservation. But Krarup saw an intrinsic reason: he suggests that the radical changes involved in constructing gasoline engines, a totally new technology, caused manufacturers of the gasoline automobile to be more innovative, whereas builders of steam automobiles tended just to place existing steam technologies on carriages.
Fourth, many of the articles comment on the social, economic, and political forces affecting the development of the automobile. Tolls and other restraints were particularly telling in England, as discussed by Kingman, and also in France. As a result, in these countries developmental efforts tended to focus on the gasoline engine, and by 1900 most automobile manufacturers in France openly condemned steam vehicles, apparently because of fear of competition, as noted in the article "Steam Abroad.” Nevertheless, Serpollet invented several key improvements of the steam powered vehicle, but these were slowly adopted in the U.S.