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The Steam Engine

Steam, as a source of power, has been evident for nearly 2,000 years. However, the first useable steam engine was designed in the late 17th century as a way of keeping miners safe (acting as a pump for water in mines).

These early steam engines were built to be stationery engines, built in place of where they were used – sometimes in large scale. As they developed, their uses increased. In fact, it was steam engines that built the foundation of the electricity industry by being the main methods of transferring heat into motion to generate power.

How steam engines work

Early steam engine by Thomas Savery for pumping waterThe development of the steam engine created several variations of the same theme. In essence all steam engines are based on creating movement from either the expansion or contraction of steam through heating and cooling.

The very early engines would use a condenser which would receive steam and on cooling would create a partial vacuum. This vacuum would pull a piston to create movement. A later development would use the expansion of steam to push a pistol upwards, with gravity pulling the piston back down. These two motions were combined in further development to use both the expansion power and the condensing power to improve efficiency.

Variations would follow to slowly improve both the speed and efficiency of these motions, including the use of multiple expansion chambers designed for different pressures, allowing steam to be used from one chamber to the next.

Many of the early steam engines would be too cumbersome and too inefficient to effectively work in automobiles, but the improvement in construction allowed higher pressure boilers to be manufactured. This higher pressure system, which could now be used safely, meant that engines could be much smaller and capable of automotive application.

Automotive use

1771 Cugnot steam carFrom the very early days of the first steam pumps, engineers and inventors started working on ideas to use this new technology to power basic carriages. It wasn’t long before French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot developed the first road vehicle, powered by steam in 1768 (although Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz get credit for the invention of the car, their invention was really the first recognisable internal combustion engine car). Likewise, a two-wheeled vehicle with steam propulsion was invented in 1868 by French Michaux-Perreaux, a year after the first electric motorcycle. These were both invented long before the claimed first motorcycle invented by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885.

Although these early developments showed the possibility of steam powered automobiles, it was the locomotive, running on rails, where steam really took off. Nevertheless, the development of steam powered cars continued and before long, there were several production cars powered by steam. In fact, the world’s first car race, a road rally in 1894 between Paris & Rouen in France, was won by Jules-Albert de Dion in a steam powered car – although it was later disqualified for needing a stoker.

In the early days of cars, steam was almost favourable to the new internal combustion engine, as it had developed much earlier and was further down the development path. Steam powered cars tended to be faster and more powerful – even holding the land speed records.

The limitations of steam were soon starting to show by the early 1920s and the development of the internal combustion engine was taking president quickly. At this point the performance advantages that steam cars held was reducing – yet they were still vastly more expensive to buy.

Through the 1920s, the number of cars produced with steam power dropped dramatically and by 1930 you would have struggled to find a single production steam car for sale.

Over the years a few companies have played with the idea of reviving the steam car, but none of these ideas ever went into production, tending to just leave a prototype or two for a bit of publicity.

Engine History for cars and motorcycles


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