The Betamax effect part two

A head of steam

Trevithick steam motor car
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First up, the steam powered car.

Steam was the motive force of the industrial revolution. From the moment the first steam pump was invented it was pretty much inevitable that the ingenious engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century would try and use the steam engine to move people from a to b. The first 'steam road locomotive' was developed in 1784 by prolific engineer, William Murdoch. Murdoch worked for the Cornish based Boulton and Watt engines and his automobile was a sideline to his main job designing steam pumps and other mining and mill engines. It seems unlikely, however, that Murdoch made a full sized version for carrying people as his employer didn't encourage his experiment.

By 1801, however, the first candidate for steam powered car was roaming the roads of Cornwall, built by local engineer - and neighbour to William Murdoch - Richard Trevithick.

Early steam engines, used in mines and mills, worked on the condensing principle: as hot steam in the piston shaft cools and condenses it creates a vacuum, effectively 'pulling' the piston into the space. Trevithick, however, created steam engines in which it was the pressure of the hot steam that moved the pistons. These engines were lighter and more efficient than condensing engines - and more suitable for propelling vehicles.

Steam engines are external combustion engines: although they rely on combustion to heat the water which produces the steam, the fire and the water are always separated. Early steam engines used fires fed with coal to heat the steam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the development of locomotives was concentrated in mining areas where coal was plentiful. In these seething engineering hotspots there was great competition to improve machinery and the conditions encouraged development. Raw materials were freely available and the constant improvements in engine power and efficiency directly affected the extraction of coal and minerals.

Because the heat source and the steam are separate, it's possible to use any kind of fuel - as long as water is heated to the required temperature to create steam. Whilst coal was abundant, and the obvious fuel choice in England, Czech engineer Joseph Bozek used oil to fire his 1815 steam driven machine. Of course, in theory it's possible to drive steam vehicles with all manner of fuels - from tiny nuclear reactors to burning wood.

The age of steam lasted over a century - with steam phaetons, buggies and coaches flowering throughout the Victorian era. The land speed record was taken by a steam powered vehicle - the Stanley steam car - in 1906 with a speed of 127mph. This record stood until 1910.

Whilst steam advanced throughout the first half of the twentieth century, culminating in cars which started with the turn of a key and were ready to roll within forty seconds, the competition from internal combustion engines became invincible. Steam declined to a vanishingly small proportion of vehicles after the second world war.

More steam history and steam cars on

by Beate Kubitz at 30 Mar 2015, 00:00 AM