Inventors started taking a great interest in steam as a form of energy around the end of the 17th century, and it was only a matter of time before they started applying steam power to locomotion.
The principle of using steam to produce mechanical movement was understood in early times, but was not really put to practical use until the beginning of the 18th century, when Thomas Savery invented a steam pump. Further milestones in the development of efficient steam engines included Newcomen’s beam engine, also developed in the early 1700s, and James Watt’s engine later in the same century, which converted power into a rotary movement and was more fuel-efficient.
‘Railways’ existed before steam locomotives, as railed tracks for horsedrawn carts. So it was natural to try to develop a steam-powered vehicle on similar lines. The first attempt was in 1804. Richard Trevithick and Andrew Vivian created a steam engine to haul iron along a narrow gauge track at the Penydarren ironworks, at Merthyr Tydfil. The engine worked, but damaged the track. Ten years later George Stephenson’s locomotive Blucher went down in history as the first steam locomotive when it successfully hauled eight loaded coal wagons 450 feet uphill.
In 1829 Britain’s first steam railway company, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, became operative, and the golden age of steam travel had begun. During the next 100 years some very powerful steam locomotives were built, a number of which, like The Mallard and The Flying Scotsman, became household names. The steam era in Britain came to an end around 1968 following the development of diesel locomotives, although it was some time before diesels were able to match the speed of the steam locos they were to replace.
Steam Road Vehicles
The earliest recorded steam-powered road vehicle was a three-wheeled tractor created by the French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, and intended to pull wagons and artillery for the French army. Richard Trevithick’s first road carriage, the Puffing Devil, ran in 1801. Stagecoaches powered by steam were used in the UK from about 1820 until 1840, when legislation was brought in to prohibit their use. Thereafter steam-powered transport in Britain was mainly restricted to railways, but the development of steam cars continued in France, where in 1878 Amedee Bollee (Sr) developed a steam car, La Mancelle, which arguably became the first car to be ‘mass produced’; 50 were built.
Another famous steam car is the Rocket Racer that took the Land Speed Record in 1906 with a speed of 127.7mph. The Rocket Race was a ‘Stanley Steamer’, made by the Stanley Motor Carriage Company in the USA. This company only manufactured steam cars and tried very hard to compete with the internal combustion vehicle during the early 20th century. The Rocket Racer, driven by Fred Marriott, was in competition with petrol cars for the record in 1906, and demonstrated conclusively that steam gave superior power to petrol; the record remained unbroken until 1910 when Barney Oldfield reached 131.7 in the petrol-powered Lightning Benz.
In 1704, around the time that attempts were being made to use steam to power locomotion on land, the French inventor Denis Papin built the first ship with a piston steam engine linked to paddles. From there experimentation continued, but it was not until the beginning of the following century that paddle steamers had progressed to the stage of being commercially viable. In 1815 a steam ship crossed the Channel, and in 1819 a paddle steamer set off from America with 75 tonnes of coal, ran out of fuel near Ireland, but still managed to reach Liverpool. By the middle of the century steamers were regularly crossing the Atlantic, and became much faster with the introduction of propellers and turbines, eventually cutting the crossing time down from weeks to days.
Will Steam Locomotion Return?
History shows that although steam locomotives were replaced by diesel, and steam cars by petrol, this was not because the diesel and petrol engines of the day provided more power or more speed. Steam produced by external combustion is an efficient method of harnessing large quantities of energy. But steam engines need a boiler, and are heavy, so their suitability for locomotive applications is limited.
Internal combustion engines, which offer far greater convenience for the user, took over. However, research into steam locomotion has not stopped; an inventor in Switzerland has been working to improve steam technology, and has developed an experimental small steam car that runs off steam stored in an insulated tank. It therefore needs no firebox or boiler, and produces no unpleasant emissions. This technology is still in its very early stages but it is not inconceivable that steam cars may re-appear in the future.