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by Phyllis Logie
Created on: February 20, 2011 Last Updated: February 24, 2011
When identical twins Francis and Freelan Stanley invented the first of its kind steam generated car, the idea of using steam had been around for thousands of years. Whilst automobiles was already a feature on the American landscape.
However, what was different and very new, was the use of steam to propel a road driven vehicle. The used of steam was in common use on water, where it was used to propel steam ships and again used by James Watt to successfully propel locomotives.
The inventors of the Stanley Steamer began their entrepreneurship as dry plate photographers many years before and then finally sold their business to Eastman Kodak, who had been trying to buy it for the previous 10 years without success. Using the proceeds they began the development of the first steam generated car, which came to be known as the Stanley Steamer. They sold their first car in 1867 and by 1899 they were in full production and selling 200 cars each year, making it the most popular car in the United States at the time.
Its main feature was the use of energy generated by steam to propel the engine. Kerosene was used to heat the water, (this could take up to thirty minutes to gather enough steam) to generate the steam. The steam was then transferred to the rear axis by a heavy chain. This is a totally different concept from the solid drive shaft used in today's car production. Secondly, it was constructed in wood and mounted on a steel frame making the vehicle very light weight on its wheels.
On the plus side, because of its simple construction, (only 22 moving parts), there was little that could go wrong, it was cheap to run, simple to drive, silent and smooth to operate. Although it was prone to blowing up from time-to- time, seldom did it cause a fire, because the cylinder was designed to come apart easily and in so doing, release water on the flames thus preventing an explosion.
However, there were a few shortcomings. Firstly, it took thirty minutes to generate sufficient steam before it would start. It also needed a high level of maintenance to keep it roadworthy and in good working order. Filling stations were few and far apart, making long journeys difficult, nor was it designed with aerodynamics in mind, that concept came much later.
The Stanley brothers eventually sold the business to focus on fine tuning and streamlining the design of their invention. One innovation was to raise the boiler pressure to levels that were unheard at the time, they would then race the car against the clock. In 1906, they took the Steamer to Daytona Beach Florida for that purpose. The car reached a top speed of 127 miles per hour, setting a land speed record that would remain unbroken for four years.
The Stanley Steamer was the first car to be produced in the US and remained the top selling car until around 1910. The death knell sounded when the gasoline operated internal combustion engine was developed. Around 1914 its popularity began to wane, by that time 8000 vehicles had been sold at a cost of $850 each.
Fine examples of the Stanley Steamers can be seen in many of the very early Hollywood movies and there are also 600 (collectors items) still in existence and today and fully functioning.
This is particularly interesting to me because my grandpa started as a steam engine mechanic, and later had a truck mechanic business.