The Betamax effect part 4

The internal combustion engine

Ford Model T
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We know it, we love it and it's everywhere. But this wasn't always the case. Somewhat alarmingly, the very early internal combustion engines (1820s-1880s) ran on gas - with experimental engines running on hydrogen, oxygen and also coal gas. Essentially, all these engines work by igniting gas and using the explosive force to move the pistons which drive the vehicle. For the development of the first petrol driven internal combustion engine in the late 1880s we move over the channel to Germany and some familiar names Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. The beauty of the petrol engine is that, although it works by igniting petrol vapour, the fuel is stored and carried as a liquid, which is much easier to transport and handle than gas. The first production vehicles with these engines were manufactured by Benz in 1888.

The 1880s were a busy time for invention and motor transport. The competing technologies for automobile transport arose pretty simultaneously - and over the next decade or so all became popular.  Developments were rapid with hundreds of small companies manufacturing and developing vehicles - and innovations came thick and fast.

As the industry settled on petrol engines, more and more effort went into their development. Engine sizes increased and, with multi-valve and overhead camshaft technologies, became faster and more sophisticated. The number of cylinders also increased - up to an incredible V16 made by Cadillac in the 1930s. Other innovations include the elegant Wankel engine, initially patented in 1929, in which all the parts move in the same direction (as compared to pistons in a normal engine which reverse direction at the end of each stroke). Not to mention that more recently, we've revisited the use of gas in internal combustion engines with cars driving on LPG and natural gas.

The game changers were barely to do with these developments, however. The game changers which pushed the development of internal combustion engine cars from novelty rides to important modes of transport were simplicity, price and refuelling infrastructure - and to some extent, the dominance of one technology accelerated the growth of driving through economies of scale.

In summary, once petrol driven cars were started with ignition rather than crank handles they could compete with electric vehicles for convenience. The introduction of the 'affordable' Model T crushed competitors, and with them the technologies they incorporated.  And finally, with the ascendency of the petrol driven mass production car, the infrastructure to support it outstripped the alternatives. With a network of petrol stations, people could drive further in their petrol vehicles with a minimum of range anxiety.

And this is where  we see the similarities with the VHS / Betamax model. Betamax may be a far superior way of recording moving images to magnetic tape, but when it came down to it, more films were available to hire on VHS. Which meant more people bought VHS players, and more video rental stores offered more VHS films because more people wanted them. A self-reinforcing trend. The selection of technology isn't always logical - sometimes it just happens. If the Model T had been an electric vehicle, it's very likely that things would be very different now.

But here's another thought. In the fullness of time, videos (and the debate about vide standards) have been more or less consigned to history as we all download Netflix. There are, quite often, game changers just around the corner.

Self-driving car, anyone?

by Beate Kubitz at 2 Apr 2015, 00:00 AM