The History of Steam-Powered Cars

The history of steam powered cars spans multiple millennia, multiple oceans, and many failed attempts.


The history of steam-powered cars goes back not just centuries, but millennia. To trace the path of its invention, we first have to go back to the first use of steam as a mechanism to power motion: the aeolipile. The aeolipile was invented by the Hero of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. Although it did not channel steam power for any practical purpose at this point, the mounted spherical device used the force of escaping steam to make it spin, demonstrating the principles that would later be used to make steam engines and steam-propelled vehicles—namely, the potential force of directed steam.

However, it would be a long time before this discovery was put to practical use. Designs for a steam-powered cannon were found amongst the papers of Leonardo da Vinci, dating back to the 15th century, although da Vinci gave credit for the invention to the Ancient Greek, Archimedes, from the 3rd century. However, these designs were lost until well after steam-powered engines were independently discovered, and so the line of invention may diverge here.

The first concrete, practical use for steam power didn't appear until 1698, when Thomas Savery invented the steam pump. This invention, pivotal to the history of the automobile, was designed and used to pump water out of mines, solving a previously insurmountable problem of flooding mines.

The steam engine is invented.

Aeolipile lamp, photo by Rama from Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Savery's steam pump is largely credited as the first steam engine, but it also came with the annoying tendency to blow up from massive internal pressure. As a result, a redesign by Thomas Newcomen just a decade or so later would be the reigning design in steam power for half a century. It is also with this design that the first steam-powered boats were invented. Though the first prototypes sank rather quickly, Newcomen's engine-powered steamboats eventually became the best new method of transportation.

However, in the second half of the 18th century, the inefficiencies in Newcomen's design were addressed by Thomas Watts. Watt's low-pressure steam engine was much safer than Savery's earlier design, but also much more efficient than Newcomen's improvements. This paved the way for the widespread use of steam-powered engines in water transportation.

Steam-powered vehicles make their way on land.

Photo by Terimekasih0 via Pixabay

The history of steam-powered cars begins in earnest during 1769, with a man named Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. The Frenchman's invention was initially used to haul heavy artillery. This steam-powered car could only move at a rate of less than three miles per hour, and was fraught with breakdowns and malfunctions. The biggest reason for his design's limitations was weight: The weight of the steam engine itself, as well as the weight of the artillery it was intended to haul, made the vehicle incredibly heavy and cumbersome. As a result, the engine design saw very little success with smaller vehicles. While this development was crucial in the history of steam-powered cars, its impact is much more heavily seen in the development of railroad trains, ultimately paving the way for massive land-based transportation of both goods and people.

Unfortunately, in addition to his invention's limitations in single cars, Cugnot faced other major issues, including becoming the first individual to get in a motor vehicle accident. After a run of bad luck and failures, funding for his work ran out, and the success with which he is owed would not be seen for many years. However, this in no way lessens his contribution to the ultimate invention of steam-powered automobiles, as his advancements would not only eventually pave the way for more efficient engines, but also contribute significantly to the development of trans-continental railroads and other vehicles that would change the nature of transportation.

The Rise of Steam-Powered Cars

Photo by Stevebidmead via Pixabay

Although steam-powered cars were at first impractical, advancements in engine design did eventually make them possible. The next important player in the history of steam-powered cars was a Brit named Richard Trevithick. His contribution was the Cornish Steam Engine, which improved on Watts' engine design, and enabled a much more successful road carriage than Cugnot's attempts. With further advancements in Great Britain, Western Europe, and the United States, steam-powered stage coaches eventually became widely popularized during the middle of the 19th century, beginning in Britain and spreading especially to France and the United States. Perhaps the most significant advancement that led to this outcome was the contributions of Oliver Evans, who improved upon Trevithick's design to create the engine that would ultimately be used for the majority of the period in which steam-powered cars were popular.

Whereas previous steam engines relied on the condensing of steam to create a vacuum, Evans' design allowed automobiles to run on high-pressure steam focused directly on the piston, admittedly one of the weirdest vintage car designs. This improved efficiency would further allow the engine to provide significant power, without being as heavy and cumbersome as previous steam-engine designs, eliminating much of the problems that previous figures like Trevithick and Cugnot came up against when attempting to do the same thing. While Evans himself never saw the success of the steam-powered automobile, it was his invention that made steam power a feasible options for road vehicles, rather than only railroad and water vehicles.

The Decline of Steam-Powered Cars

Photo by GoranH via Pixabay

The impracticality of steam-powered cars meant that in the end, steam engines were relegated to use mainly in large railroad trains and ships. By 1850, the history of steam-powered cars in Britain was already drawing to a close, with an act banning their use on roads and cementing them in history as some of the worst cars to ever be invented despite how pivotal they were to the modern design of cars today. A significant impetus to this decline was the invention of more efficient, safer means of individual road transportation, including the first electric cars in the 1830s. Steam-powered and electrically-powered cars battled for prevalence in the developed world for the remainder of the century, as both methods had their drawbacks and were better suited to large, multi-passenger vehicles than single road cars or carriages. However, by the end of the century, advancements in electrical power pushed those cars ahead of the competition.

In the United States, steam-powered cars lasted much longer. While early steam-powered cars had all the same issues as their European counterparts (and were often the same cars, of course), many companies succeed in producing commercially popular steam cars. The most famous of these is perhaps Stanley Steamer. This company built advanced steam cars for years, gaining popularity from 1896 all the way up until the 1930s. Of course, despite this decline in the application of steam-powered cars and the surmounting problems with driving vintage cars because of this design, the steam engine itself remained a crucial invention, enabling the construction of trans-continental railroads and ushering in a new era of transportation and migration.

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