Page images


The task of determining why the internal combustion engine is the engine of primary use is as difficult as determining who discovered America. The historical record of locomotive power is an exercise in love and confusion. The affection of authors and historians for one or another of the electric, steam, or internal combustion engines results in the favored machine being bathed in rose-colored lights. Confusion exists because few sources including the papers of the principals themselves—agree even on dates, let alone on the factors that influenced the ultimate success or failure of the power unit.

Nevertheless there are numerous identifiable factors, individuals, and circumstances involved in the trail that leads ultimately to our current automobile. Among these are the political, sociological, economic, technological (internal and external), and institutional forces that influenced the decisions of individuals and firms, Personal drives of engineers, promoters, and financiers were also instrumental in shaping the current automobile industry.

The critical period for the fledgling auto industry was from about 1900 to about 1920:1

The period * * * was * * * one of ferment and growth for the entire automobile industry. That activity was in fact a phantasmagoria of bold ideas, ingenious and stubborn experimentation, enthusiastic promotion, dramatic accomplishment, and weird display. From it developed the steadier era of manufacturing in which Henry Ford would emerge as a leader.

Although by 1900 at least fifty-seven American plants engaged in making motor cars, many were in an experimental state, the basic type of vehicle had not yet been determined, and it was uncertain where the chief centers for the new industry would develop. This year saw about 4,000 American cars manufactured, of which steam and electric models made more than three-fourths. One respectable set of figures lists 1,681 steam carriages, 1,575 electrics, and only 936 gasoline cars.

THE STEAM AUTOMOBILE Steam as a source of motive power has a long and illustrious history (see foldout). Road vehicles based on it were being road-tested at least a century before either electricity or internal combustionpowered vehicles.

1 Nevins, Allan, Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company (New York: Charles Scribner's, Sons (1954), pp. 193-94).

* Rae, John B., The American Automobile, A Brief History. University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 2.


Most important to the development of the automobile was James Watt's invention of the connecting rod and throttles to control the force of steam and thus vary the speed of the engine. It is understandable that this English invention was improved on and applied by successive English engineers. Commercial application of steam to passenger transportation and agriculture grew rapidly in England in the early 1800's.

But in 1831 a special committee was established by the Parliament to look into the damages and benefits of the steam vehicle (an early example of technology assessment). Public pressure from various groups-primarily_railroad and stagecoach interests—was instrumental in forcing Parliament to pass restrictive tolls and legislation aimed at suppressing road vehicles. A boiler explosion on one coach in 1840 resulted in the deaths of 5 people. The public impact of this accident led to attempts to legislate the steamers off the road. The prohibitive legislation was in the form of tolls and the requirement of an attendant to precede the vehicle and wave a red flag.

Tolls were reduced by an Act of Parliament in 1861. However, the Locomotive Act of 1865 restricted the speed of propelled vehicles to 4 miles per hour in the country and 2 miles per hour in town. The RoadLocomotive Act of 1878 did not provide additional freedom except it did not require the red flag.3 4 These Acts were repealed in 1896.5

The English institutional restraints undoubtedly had a pronounced effect on the early development of the steam road vehicle. By the time the acts were repealed, England's enthusiasm for steam had already waned and half a century of potential experimentation and operation experience were irretrievably lost.

Meanwhile Leon Serpollet of France, a man of limited financial means, made great improvements in the steam engine. He improved the carriage, developed the flash boiler, and won the world's land speed-record of 75.06 miles per hour in 1902. His vehicle was similar in appearance to petrol-cars and was as light for the same power. His innovations died with him in 1907, as England and France turned to gasoline powered automobiles.?

The Stanley Brothers of Newton, Massachusetts, were the most successful steam car manufacturers and many of their cars were exported. A number of circumstances hampered their ultimate role in the automotive industry. One author describes the Stanleys as "cussed New Englanders” who wanted a comfortable living and had no interest in building an automobile empire. They were content to produce 600 cars a year while Henry Ford's goal was 600–650 cars a day. Furthermore they did not believe in advertising.' They were reported to have screened prospective purchasers and, if they didn't like the prospective owners' personalities, would not take their orders.

The major promotional activity of the Stanley Brothers was speed racing. In 1907, Fred Marriot attained a speed of 197 mph in a Stanley Steamer at Daytona Beach. His crash at that speed did nothing to enhance the image of the steamer.

3 Davison, C. St. C. B., History of Steam Road Vehicles, Ministry of Education. Science Museum, London, 1953, pp. 1-2.

* Jamison, Andrew, the Steam-Powered Automobile, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1970, pp. 37-38. 6 Davison, p. 26.

Davison, p. 51. ? Jamison, p. 39. & Davison, p. 52. * Jamison, p. 42.

The Stanleys did not utilize a condenser until 1917 when Boston and Chicago threatened to ban the steamer from the streets. Objections to billowing steam from the boiler, plus public reaction to frequent water stops, convinced the Stanleys to change. Although they added the condenser, the Stanleys ran into new and avoidable troubles. They neglected to fit oil-traps between the engine and condenser, and filters between the condenser and water tank.. They would not however, switch to a flash boiler. The 20 to 45 minutes needed to get up steam was a major competitive weakness against the jump-in-and-go advantage of the gasoline powered vehicles.

The White brothers produced their first steam car in 1901. They advertised, innovated, competed, and built as many cars as they could. In 1906 they were producing about 1,500 cars a year but by 1909 they deserted steam for the gasoline engine. One author contends that White switched because of the development of service stations exclusively to service gas cars and the elimination of public water troughs (handy sources of boilerwater) because of hoof and mouth disease. 11

“The finest of all steamers and a classic in its own right” is the way the Doble steamer is often described. Abner Doble produced his first steamer in 1901.

His cars were built to exacting standards and cost $10,000 and up. Doble's cars were masterpieces, but not fit for a competitive market. The car could get underway in 15 seconds and cruise effortlessly at 75 mph. Unfortunately only a few could afford to purchase it. Nevertheless, despite its price, Doble was swamped with orders totalling $27 million after a showing in 1917. The War Emergency Board discouraged production, and none of the orders were filled.12 Doble produced 40 cars between 1921 and 1932. The Doble factory ceased production in 1932.

In the early 1950's, Robert Paxton McCulloch established the Paxton Division of his McCulloch Motor Company. His objective was to develop the "Paxton", a high-class steam car that would make the Doble look cheap. The project was abandoned in 1954 because McCulloch felt it to be economically risky to attempt to compete with the established industry.18

ELECTRIC CARS Scotty Anderson is credited with constructing an electric powered vehicle in 1839. The vehicle was crude and in no way competitive with the steam vehicles that had been plying the roads and rails of England since 1825. Interest in the electric vehicle was minimal until the heyday of the Locomotive Acts. By 1870, Sir David Salomons had devised a light electric motor and heavy storage batteries. The low power per weight of these batteries resulted in locomotion far inferior to the range and speed of the steam engine. No spectacular developments appeared to be forthcoming. But now the scene was changing to the United States.

The Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, began producing electric road vehicles in 1897. Five hundred electric cars were manufactured in the next two years. At this time, 1899, the Pope

10 Bird, Anthony and Lord Montagu of Beaulien, steam Cars, 1770-1970. Cassel and Co.. Ltd. London, 1971, p. 165.

11 Jamison, p. 44. 12 Jamison, p. 48. 13 Jamison, p. 49.

Manufacturing Company, its numerous divisions, the Columbia Company and the Electric Vehicle Company went through a series of mergers. These mergers resulted in the Electric Vehicle Company becoming the holding company for assets of $200 million. This firm was the first large-scale operation in the American automobile industry, and the first to use many parts manufactured by other firms.

The mergers were instrumental in gaining complete rights to George Selden's patent for the internal combustion engine. Royalties were collected from all manufacturers except Henry Ford, who filed suit and won in 1911.

The Electric Vehicle Company manufactured 2,000 taxicabs, and by 1904 about one-third of the vehicles in New York, Chicago, and Boston were electrics. Besides these vehicles, they produced some trucks and buses. These vehicles were heavy, clumsy, and of course of limited range. The owners of the company had high hopes and visualized a need for a chain of electric charging stations. They set up subsidiary cab and car rental companies in every large city from New York to Chicago.

The dreams and hopes did not materialize. Out of the $200 million of assets, the company salvaged $2 million in the new reorganization as the Columbia Motor Company in 1909. The following year this firm became part of Benjamin Briscoe's United States Motor Company. The latter failed shortly afterward.

The demise of the leading producer of American electric cars was almost simultaneous with the Studebaker Corporation decision to discontinue electrics in 1911.

The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company was a well established wagon and carriage company. In 1902, they were making 5 models of electrics. Only 20 electrics were sold in the first year. A recent author quotes from a Studebaker catalog:

As may be imagined, we have not been indifferent to the introduction of the horseless carriage. We have not, however, believed that it would be wise on our part or good faith toward the public to push upon the market an imperfect or immature product. We have expended a large amount of time and money in experimenting and research conducted for us by experts in order that the machine of our adoption should be such that we could recommend and not discredit our stand

ing in the vehicle world. 14 In 1911 Studebaker decided that the opportunities were now with the gasoline engine, and they dropped the electrics.

The electric cars were popular with urban women. The first gasoline cars were noisy, and dirty. They rattled, spewed oil, and broke down. But most important from the standpoint of women drivers, neither hand cranking of gasoline engines nor broken arms were alluring. The electrics were smooth running, quiet, dependable, clean, and genteel; they were a real asset to the society women of the era.

The electrics could also perform more rugged duty. There were some large electric truck fleets in operation in 1915. A comparison of a few users of electrics is listed below:15

14 Erickson, C. R., Electric Vehicle History. Electric Vehicle News. November 1972, p. 27. 15 Erickson, p. 26.

« PreviousContinue »