There's something mesmerizing in the steam engine culture, don't you find?
When I belonged to a cohort of the most equal Soviet children, one of the first books I read was about adventures of Neznaika and his friends (Dunno or Know-Nothing “sprite”) by Nikolay Nosov. The book itself was a development of Palmer Cox's stories and comics about “The Brownies.” What I found exciting in that book was a car working on a carbonated syrup. The concept, actually, became so memorable that even today, on closing my eyes, I see that page with a drawing. Moreover, as a child, I even engineered that car! It was propelled by a liquid which flowed between two tanks of different pressures and rotated the axle with wheels on its way. To cut production costs and boost market attractiveness, the carbonated syrup was replaced by water. Mates, that was the world's best invention ever!
Hmmmm... Surely, those who read me regularly may object that the Optimus Prime was the best invention... But I never made the technical drawing for that mechanical guy.
Studio Ghibli and its mastermind Hayao Miyazaki went even further. In 2004 they aired an animé film “The Howl's Moving Castle,” one of the most financially successful Japanese films in history. Not water in pipes – or the carbonated syrup – but the steam propelled everything. Personally, I strongly recommend you to have a look at that film! Imagine a fictional fantasy kingdom which reminds Europe of the mid-19th century. Refined manners, retro dresses, high words, Victorian buildings, street ball dances, untouched nature. The plot above love, greed, sacrifice, and war. The plot about adventures and feelings within and outside of the creepy-but-compassionate house-on-legs. And clouds of steam! Steam and magic (the magic of steam?) is everywhere!
Actually, the steam was everywhere in our world as well. Looking back at the beginning of the 20th century, the steam technology – the external combustion – was incomparably better developed than the internal combustion. Speaking particularly of cars, the first of them emerged as early as 1770: Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a retired French officer, invented “fardier à vapeur.” Then, in 1803, Richard Trevithick presented his London steam carriage. In more than ten years, in 1815, Josef Božek put onto streets the first steam carriage for personal use.
Then there was the Stanley Steamer company famous for producing the best-sellers only. Moreover, these guys were the daredevils to craft the Stanley “Rocket” and set the world’s land speed record in 1906. Fred Marriott piloted the car and accelerated up to 204 km/h (127 mph) at Ormond Beach, Florida. That record remained unbeaten by any four-wheels vehicle up to 1910. That record remained unbeaten by any steam car up to 2009! Mates, can you grasp this!? The speed developed by the Stanley “Rocket” in 1906 was behind any reach for any steam car for more than a century! I was shocked when I read this. Never thought the steam cars could be that powerful, sophisticated, and fast. Charmed by the animé and stereotypes, I used to imagine them as lovely-but-wobbly outdated machines. But no!
To put it straight: as for the beginning of the 20th century, the steam technologies were ones of the cutting edge. The problem was, however, that they failed to win a long run competition. Objectively and subjectively.
Subjectively, the steam technology lost to petrol because of the “arrogance” of its proponents and the inefficient marketing strategy.
To begin with, personal moving vehicles were a very rare phenomena hundred years ago. Every car was handcrafted on an individual order and after a solid prepayment. Therefore, only selected and very rich people could afford them. This being said, the steam cars enjoyed a fair popularity. Taking the Stanley Steamer company, for instance, it outsold all petrol cars in the U.S. between 1899 and 1905. It came second – and here is one more eye-opening paradox – it came second only to the electric cars of the Columbia Automobile Company. Electric cars of 1900s! My world will never be the same!
When the internal combustion engines started gaining momentum, the steam car manufacturers decided to attack the competitive technology, not to present theirs as a better one. In the Stanley Steamer case, their advertising slogan was as follows: “Power – correctly generated, correctly controlled, correctly applied to the rear axle.” The slogan unequivocally hinted that the petrol engines could explode while driving (i.e. generate power “incorrectly” and become “uncontrolled”). Actually, petrol units at that time were nicknamed the “internal explosion engines.”
Instead of attacking, steam car manufacturers could have stressed the advantages of their vehicles. Primarily, steam engines – the same as electric – have immediate throttle response. They are much better suited to deal with the speed and torque, what saves weight as no transmission is required. By itself, the steam engine is a couple of times lighter than the petrol one. The Stanley “Rocket,” for instance, weighted around 720 kg (1600 pounds). Secondly, steam engine produces almost no noise and vibration while operating. Pleasant and smooth ride. Thirdly, steam boilers have always been much safer than one can imagine. They do not explode. In case of any damage, the steam immediately rushes through the friction leaving passengers unhurt. Not to speak that a special valve system has been invented to cope with the under-and-over-pressure. Finally, what a lot of people overlook, steam engines run on water and emit water! Super-environmentally-friendly solution!
Apart from the inefficient marketing strategy, the steam technology had a variety of drawbacks in itself. And here comes the objective reason for its failure. Steam cars, especially those of 1900s, needed water. Much water! This annihilated the light-weight engine advantage making the car heavy and big. Secondly, the coefficient of performance, as well as the thermal efficiency of a an external combustion engine was not that good. At least, not comparable to the internal combustion unit, which appeared to be more agile and productive. Thirdly, and this is what irritates me the most: in order to make the car move anywhere, one was supposed to wait for a couple of minutes for the steam to form. And then, rolling very slowly, another 15-20 minutes were needed for the burner to reach the operating temperature. Fourthly, the steam inevitably escaped into the atmosphere what significantly limited the driving range. In 1915 a solution was found, the condensator, however it was too little too late. It also failed to grab 100% of the steam. Fifthly, and this is related to the fourth point, the steam car was actually a huge cattle! In particular, the Stanley vehicles were nicknamed “The Flying Teapots” because of this. Stylish name, probably. Sixthly, to convert water into steam, one was supposed to use fuel. The old-good petrol and liquid gas starred again.
Finally, there came Henry Ford with his business solutions and technical innovations: conveyor production, reliable petrol engine with an electric start, simple engineering and developed servicing network, smooth ride and low prices. In 1924 the Stanley sedan cost around $4000 compared to less than $500 for the Model T. That was it for the steam.
The external combustion engines became utterly forfeited after 1940s. This allowed Jeremy Clarkson to write the following on October 12, 2003:
“It doesn’t matter whether you drive a McLaren or a McDonald’s delivery van, you are still relying on exactly the same technology that was dreamed up more than 100 years ago. In some ways this is a good thing, because when change is slow there’s a chance for engineers to plane away at the rough edges, leaving you with something close to perfection. If there had been a completely new type of technology invented every 20 years or so, none would have been refined to the same extent as the internal combustion engine we have now.”
In other words, the internal combustion engines became the world's best today as they had no serious competition for a century. Steam was dead. Electricity could not produce long-lasting batteries.
But is there a chance to revive the steam power in future? Will it be justified?
Looking at the 2009 record breaking steam vehicle – the Inspiration – it is, at least, possible. Crafted by the British Steam Car Challenge, the Inspiration is a 7.6 m (24.1 feet) long and 1.7 m (5.6 feet) wide car weighting 3 tons. The engine stables 360 horses who “drink” around 40L of water per minute. The engine can also be spun up to 12K RPM. To heat all of its 12 boilers and produce a super-steam (400 °C or 752 °F), the liquid gas is used. 3 Megawatts of heat is generated, what is fairly enough to make a delicious omelet with bacon. And serve it with a couple of cans of tea.
On August 25, 2009 The Inspiration, piloted by Charles Burnett III, reached a maximum speed of 243.148 km/h (151.085 mph). The new land speed record, however, was fixed as 225.055 km/h (139.843 mph). The next day another pilot, Don Wales, broke another record by achieving an average speed of 238.679 km/h (148.308 mph) over two consecutive runs over a measured kilometre. With all due respect to the Stanley “Rocket,” a new King climbed to sit on the Hill.
Speaking of the more “civic” steam technologies which do not aim at beating speed records, one should mention the Saab experiment above all. As a result of 1973 oil crisis, the Swedes hired the team of engineers headed by Dr. Ove Platell and launched the ULF project. In a year (!) the team presented a 160 HP external combustion unit of the size of a standard car battery. The engine did not require any time to start from a cold. No or very little steam ended up in the atmosphere as a hermetical water circulating system was invented. The engine also used a conical rotary valve made from pure boron nitride. Once again: the Saab guys crafted the steam engine which operates similarly to the rx-7 Wankel engine! This being said, for some fishy reasons the ULF became frozen. Dr. Platell left Saab and founded his own company, Ranotor. As of 2008, Volvo and Scania truck manufacturers revealed interest in cooperation with Ranotor. No news since then.
Then, there was the Cyclone Power Technologies. A comparatively small company founded by Harry Schoell in 2007, in Pompano Beach, Florida. The company made up a slogan “One Planet One Engine” and started working on a variety of units propelled by the steam. Personally, I find two of them the most interesting: Cyclone Mk5 engine and Cyclone waste heat engine. The first is a six-cylinder radial unit which is claimed to produce 100 HP at a 3500 RPM. It is water lubricated, hermetic, and emits no steam into the atmosphere. In 2008, Popular Science Magazine named the Cyclone Mk5 “The Invention of The Year.” The second is an offshoot of the Mk5 development and is meant to burn waste to produce the steam. Waste, mates! All the paper boxes remaining after you screw the IKEA furniture may be burned and make your vehicle move! Some of the IKEA furniture may be burned too!
However, on practice, it appears that the Cyclone's engines are not that much of a success. At least, the information about the company's successes looks very fishy. On the one hand, they produced something and provided that something to consumers. The quality seemed to be fine as consumers did not start suing (at least, I found nothing on this topic). On the other hand, neither the Mk5, nor the waste engine have ever been installed into the car. The evil rumours say that both engines are very “raw” and lack power.
Finally, the most successful attempt to revitalize the mass steam car was accomplished by the Enginion AG, a research-and-development subsidiary of the Volkswagen. At least, I see it as the most successful. Their 1996 prototype engine, EZEE03, was a three-cylinder 1L unit producing up to 220 HP. It required no oil to operate as cylinder linings were ceramic with the steam serving as a lubricant. It emitted almost no polluting gases. It could start immediately achieving its maximum performance in 30 seconds. Moreover, EZEE03 was actually fitted into a Škoda Fabia! This being said, for some fishy reasons the Enginion AG closed the project. They declared officially that the market was not ready for the steam cars. Lovely declaration. Volkswagen should probably “enjoy” the dieselgate today.
If you ask me whether the steam car engineering has future, I would say yes. But it needs to be developed with many more deliberation and dedication. Not only groups of enthusiasts, but the industrial leviathans should opt for this technology. The same as the petrol engine in 1900s, the steam one requires refinement by the brightest minds of our era. Steam engineers need to compete with one another. Steam engines need to grow “muscles.”
This being said, the drawbacks of the external combustion – as well as its general perception as the outdated technology in our petrol-dominated world – discourages further researches. The steam engine has been pushed, therefore, to the outskirts of automotive industry. It “scares” engineers in the same way as an awakened mummy can “scare” a group of strayed archaeologists.
But, as a dreamer, I'd be happy driving my own “Flying Teapot” one day. Wearing long scarf and big glasses, I'm gonna be a true steam punk. Like Howl! Yeah!
P.S. Did you know that Radiator Springs from “The Cars” film was founded by the Stanley Steamer? Now you know.
P.P.S. Matt Parsons can be reached here: www.behance.net/Matthew_Parsons_SA