12 artifacts in this set
French military engineer Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot designed his three-wheeled, steam-powered dray to haul cannons. While it could carry five tons at two miles per hour, Cugnot's unwieldy wagon was difficult to steer, and its inefficient boiler limited the dray's operating time to about 15 minutes. Unimpressed, French officials did not approve Cugnot's steam wagon for military use.
This vehicle is the oldest surviving American automobile. In the 1860s, a small steam carriage running under its own power -- without horses! -- was so startling that people paid to see it driven. It was a curiosity, not transportation. By the time its inventor, Sylvester Roper, died in 1896, new innovators were transforming horseless carriages from curiosities into practical vehicles.
Massachusetts machinist Sylvester Roper built at least seven steam-powered carriages and two steam-powered motorcycles years before automobiles -- as we know them -- appeared. Roper never produced his vehicles commercially. Instead, he exhibited them at circuses and fairs where crowds marveled at the self-propelled contraptions. Steamboats and steam locomotives were common, but steam-powered carriages were genuine novelties.
This steam-powered runabout, by Locomobile, was built from designs by twin brothers, F. E. and F. O. Stanley. These early vehicles were fast, cheap, and relatively uncomplicated. However, fuel needs, excessive water consumption, and other inherent problems dogged the lightweight steamer. In 1902, Locomobile began production of a gasoline internal combustion engine. The company phased out their steam-powered vehicles in 1904.
Compared with gasoline and electricity, steam was time-tested technology when automobiles debuted in the late 19th century -- a point emphasized in this 1899 Locomobile advertisement that described steam as "the one power universally known and understood." The ad also downplayed the perceived risk of a boiler explosion, noting that Locomobile's automatic-feed boiler required "no more care than a teakettle."
The Steam Vehicle Company of America, in operation from 1900 to 1902, named its steam-powered "Reading" model in honor of Reading, Pennsylvania, where the car was conceived. This advertisement promotes the Reading's durability and design. It also touts the model's quiet operation and minimal exhaust -- two virtues not shared by gasoline-powered cars at the time.
Steam powered 19th-century America. Some early car manufacturers used this familiar technology to power their vehicles. The White Company was one of the best. Several well-known Americans purchased White steamers and President Taft included one in the first presidential car fleet. White, unlike other manufacturers of steam cars, shifted to gasoline-powered automobiles. It made its last steamer in 1911.
If you had never run a steam engine before, how would you know how to operate a steam-powered vehicle? This 1904 instruction manual helped owners navigate the ins and outs of the White Steam Touring car. Numbered illustrations, parts lists, and "how-to" instructions familiarize drivers with their new vehicle.
Steam engines powered the earliest cars, and steam vehicles outsold gasoline-powered cars into the 1900s. Steam power was safe, reliable, and familiar to Americans, although the range of steam-powered automobiles was limited by the amount of fuel and water they could carry. This resourceful driver stopped for water at a horse trough, part of the existing transportation infrastructure.
Brothers Francis and Freelan Stanley built their first steam car in 1897, when the ideal automobile power source was an open question. Gasoline emerged as the clear favorite by the mid-1910s, but the Stanley Motor Carriage Company stuck with steam until the firm went out of business in 1924. Today, Stanley is the best remembered of the early steam makes.
Some automakers continued with alternate power sources even after gasoline engines became dominant. Doble Steam Motors of Emeryville, California, produced the world's most sophisticated steam cars. Electric ignition cut warm-up time to 90 seconds. Condensers captured and reused exhaust steam. Top speed exceeded 90 miles per hour. But fallout from a fraudulent stock sale forced Doble to close in 1931.
In the 1960s, aviation pioneer Bill Lear made the last serious effort to develop steam vehicles. This 1969 brochure for the Lear Vapordyne highlights steam's potential. Vehicles envisioned included buses and passenger cars. Lear also worked on a steam-powered race car. It never raced.