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No. 493:
Steam, Electricity, and Internal Combustion

Today, we wonder how to power our car. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

By the 1890s steam cars had been around more than a century. They hadn't amounted to much. When it came to real transportation, railroads did all the dirty work. Now people saw that freedom of individual movement might be possible. Now gasoline engines and electric motors appeared. Suddenly a great sorting out had to take place.

How do you suppose we chose among steam, electricity, and gasoline? It'd be nice to think that we simply sat down and weighed strength against weakness. Of course we did not.

At first steam was the clear leader. In 1906 a Stanley steamer raced at 150 miles an hour. Airplanes wouldn't match that until after WW-I. That was important because why, after all, did anyone want a car? Not for normal transportation! Railways and electric trolleys took care of that. The first cars served sport, not need.

Yet steam cars had drawbacks in the sporting world. They gave terrific performance. But it took 20 minutes to build a head of steam each time you started up. And certain valves lay on the floor between the driver's legs. No problem if you wore pants. But just try to use them wearing an Edwardian dress!

As long as cars were meant for show and short spins, battery-powered electrics were competitive. They were the luxury elite -- slow and sedate. Electric-car makers sold to the rich and to elegant ladies. They made no concessions to a mass market. They spared no expense for elegance.

With a bigger market, they might've allied with electric companies and set up battery-charging stations. But they failed in that, and their cars had to stay near home. Worse yet, wealthy buyers simply wanted sportier machines.

Henry Ford's cheap mass-produced cars came out just before WW-I. So did the automatic starter. Now gasoline was ready to blow steam and electricity away. Within a few years, it did.

But should it have? Electricity still isn't competitive: but we might've made it so. Articles in defense of steam cars come out all the time. They don't need a transmission. They can burn any fuel you want to use.

But we made a choice and then sealed ourselves into it. That's the great dilemma of pure market-driven technologies. We choose to gain an immediate return -- not to gain what could be. Invention served us best back in 1900, when the three power sources were toe to toe. For a brief day, we were rich -- rich in the wealth of possibility.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Volti, R., Why Internal Combustion? American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall 1990, pp. 42-47.