The Stanley Steamer: The Forgotten Power of H2O

With gas still over three bucks a gallon, there’s a lot of talk nowadays about so-called ”alternative” fuels. But 100 years ago two brothers built a vehicle that ran on water, created virtually no pollution, and was so well made that many of them are still on the road today. It was called the Stanley Steamer (no relation to the floor cleaning machine) and it holds an honored place in the histories of both automobiles and technological innovation. In the late 19th century, Francis and Freelan Stanley of New Hampshire sold their photographic plate company to Eastman Kodak for a sizeable amount of money. At the time, visionaries were talking about how a newfangled invention known as the automobile would soon change the world. Hearing these stories, the brothers decided to pool their resources and get into the car business. And so the Stanley Motor Carriage Company was born. It started turning out vehicles in 1897, though it would be another five years before its official founding. The big question in automotive circles at the time was what would propel the cars of the future. An early favorite was the gasoline-powered engine. It had several drawbacks, however. One was the need to start it with a hand crank . If it took off with too much force, the crank could, and often did, cause severe injury to the operator’s arm before he could let go of it. This was not a strong selling point. The Stanley brothers, wary of the limitations of the internal combustion engines of the time, decided to fall back on a tried-and-true form of propulsion: steam. After all, boiler-powered locomotives had been in existence for almost a century by then, and most of the bugs had been ironed out of them. So between 1897 and 1899 they built and sold 200 vehicles driven by the expanding force of heated water. The only fossil fuel used in the process was vaporized gasoline, which was used to heat the boiler. Kerosene later took its place, due to safety and economy reasons. Early models had bodies made of wood and reinforced by tubular steel. The boiler sat underneath the driver’s seat. At the time the greatest safety hazard associated with steam power was the risk of the boiler exploding. Determined to protect their customers from this fate, the Stanley brothers took a number of safety precautions. They wrapped their boilers in heavy-duty piano wire and installed release vents that would kick in if internal pressures exceeded safety limits. If all else failed, one of the tubing joints was designed to open, pouring water on the heating element to douse its flame and depressurize the engine. The system worked exceedingly well. Their cars have been driven for well over a century now and there has yet to be a boiler-related injury or malfunction. The engines generated massive torque at all speeds, so transmissions were unnecessary. In fact, one of the best features of the Stanley brother’s cars was their unheard-of power. In 1906 one set a world speed record at Daytona Beach of 127 mph. Given that 25 mph was considered excellent at the time, this accomplishment was nothing short of phenomenal. The most remembered and best loved of the Stanley Steamers was the 1911 Model 63 touring car. It was a perfect combination of form and function. Even today, over 100 of them still tool around the scenic highways and back roads of countries across the globe, maintained with loving care by their owners. You can find videos of them on the Internet. They’re remarkably quiet when compared to their gasoline-powered cousins, making a pleasant chugging sound as they go along. The biggest limitation of early steam-driven vehicles was the frequent need to replenish the water tank. Motorists needing a few gallons of H2O would refill from a nearby stream, or ask a neighbor if they could siphon some fuel from their well. Eventually, condensers were added to the layout. They recycled the spent steam and boosted range considerably. By the 1920s the steam craze was dying out, as an upstart named Henry Ford was marketing a gas-powered car known as the Model T. Equipped with an electric starter, it avoided the arm-wrenching problems caused by earlier versions. In 1924 the Stanley Steamer Company closed its doors for good. The idea of using steam power to drive vehicles remains alive and well, however. Tinkerers around the world are building and driving modern versions. With the financial and environmental costs of gas engines weighing heavily on many people’s minds, perhaps the steam car’s best days are yet ahead.