How the Steam-Powered Car Came to Be

When we think of automotive pioneers, people like Henry Ford come to mind: late 19th-early 20th century inventors who harnessed the power of the internal combustion engine. Two figures that usually go unmentioned are Robert Fourness and James Ashworth. Yet a number of sources report that the pair built a functioning automobile as far back as 1788. One reason that this account gets scant mention in history books is the type of engine that powered this early vehicle. It was driven by steam, the same power source that drove cars in the United States from the 1880s through the 1920s. And, while the media likes to focus on hybrids and battery-powered vehicles, a number of recent advancements in steam-powered cars keep alive the possibility that they might be the ultimate successors to the gasoline engine. The 1920s: the Heyday of Steam The second decade of the 20th century saw a number of manufacturers turning out steam-driven vehicles to eager buyers. The most famous of these was the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, which operated from 1902 to 1924. In 1906 one of their cars, the legendary Stanley Steamer, broke the land speed record of the time, reaching 127 MPH during a test at Ormond Beach, Florida. Early steam-powered cars had a distinct weakness: they vented water vapor into the air, severely limiting their range. This changed in 1914, when Stanley introduced a model with a condenser that could go much further than earlier versions. The next 10 years saw significant advancements in steam engines, as they became lighter and safer than ever before.

How the Steam-Powered Car Came to Be

A New Record is Set On August 26, 2009, the speed record set in 1906 by Stanley was shattered by a new steam-powered vehicle built by a British team. It reached 143 MPH. The crew that built it is one of a number of associations that are working to bring steam-driven cars into the 21st century. If they succeed, then history books might ultimately say that a classic form of technology, not a new one, made the internal combustion engine obsolete. Time will tell.

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