Today, we wonder how to power our car. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
By the 1890s steam cars had
been around more than a century. They hadn't
amounted to much. When it came to real
transportation, railroads did all the dirty work.
Now people saw that freedom of individual movement
might be possible. Now gasoline engines and
electric motors appeared. Suddenly a great sorting
out had to take place.
How do you suppose we chose among steam,
electricity, and gasoline? It'd be nice to think
that we simply sat down and weighed strength
against weakness. Of course we did not.
At first steam was the clear leader. In 1906 a
Stanley steamer raced at 150 miles an hour.
Airplanes wouldn't match that until after WW-I.
That was important because why, after all, did
anyone want a car? Not for normal transportation!
Railways and electric trolleys took care of that.
The first cars served sport, not need.
Yet steam cars had drawbacks in the sporting world.
They gave terrific performance. But it took 20
minutes to build a head of steam each time you
started up. And certain valves lay on the floor
between the driver's legs. No problem if you wore
pants. But just try to use them wearing an
As long as cars were meant for show and short
spins, battery-powered electrics were competitive.
They were the luxury elite -- slow and sedate.
Electric-car makers sold to the rich and to elegant
ladies. They made no concessions to a mass market.
They spared no expense for elegance.
With a bigger market, they might've allied with
electric companies and set up battery-charging
stations. But they failed in that, and their cars
had to stay near home. Worse yet, wealthy buyers
simply wanted sportier machines.
Henry Ford's cheap mass-produced cars came out just
before WW-I. So did the automatic starter. Now
gasoline was ready to blow steam and electricity
away. Within a few years, it did.
But should it have? Electricity still isn't
competitive: but we might've made it so. Articles
in defense of steam cars come out all the time.
They don't need a transmission. They can burn any
fuel you want to use.
But we made a choice and then sealed ourselves into
it. That's the great dilemma of pure market-driven
technologies. We choose to gain an immediate return
-- not to gain what could be. Invention served us
best back in 1900, when the three power sources
were toe to toe. For a brief day, we were rich --
rich in the wealth of possibility.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds