Why Internal Combustion?
In the beginning, steam and electricity seemed much more promising for automobiles. The reasons they died out aren’t as simple as you may think.
From 1899 to 1901 the largest-selling car in America by far was the steam-powered Locomobile. Sixteen hundred of them were produced in 1900 alone, an impressive feat of mass production by the standards of the time. Other companies produced a small handful of steamers as well, plus 1,575 electric cars and just 936 powered by internal combustion. Electric cars were the main competition for steam; in 1895 an electric was cited at America’s first automobile race, in Chicago, “for the best showing made on official test for safety, ease of control, absence of noise, vibration, heat or odor, cleanliness and general excellence.” That triumph had helped build a market for several electric-car makers.
By contrast the internal-combustion engine seemed to many to have a bleak automotive future. Col. Albert A. Pope, the largest manufacturer of automobiles before the turn of the century, concentrated initially on electric cars because “you can’t get people to sit over an explosion.” A turn-of-the-century critic voiced the sentiments of many when he derided the internal-combustion engine as “noisy, unreliable, and elephantine, it vibrates so violently as to loosen one’s dentures,” and added, “The automobile industry will surely burgeon … but this motor will not be a factor.”
Less than two decades later the internal-combustion engine had become the undisputed power plant of choice for the vast majority of car manufacturers. By 1917 approximately 3.5 million automobiles were registered in the United States, and fewer than 50,000 were electrics. Steam had virtually vanished; the last major manufacturer, the famous Stanley Motor Carriage Company, produced in that year a grand total of 730 steamers, substantially fewer cars than Ford turned out before lunch on an average day.
What happened? Why were steamers and electrics unable to maintain the dominance they had enjoyed at the beginning of the century? The easy answer, of course, is that the internal-combustion engine was technically superior. It was, but that does not adequately explain anything, for no consumer buys anything on the basis of abstract technical virtues. Technological superiority is relevant only when it addresses specific needs, and needs and expectations change over time. Moreover, technologies, superior or otherwise, are not self-sufficient; they often depend on the availability of complementary technologies.
That was especially true for the internal-combustion engine. Unlike a steam engine or electric motor, it operates effectively only within a relatively narrow range of rotational speeds, so it needs a transmission device that allows the engine to produce sufficient power irrespective of the speed of the car’s driving wheels. At first this purpose was served by the sliding-gear transmission, invented by Emile Levassor in 1891. Levassor’s famous assessment of his device—“ brutal, mais Ça marche ” (brutal, but it works)—was accurate. But without the clunky mechanism and its successors, gasoline-powered automobiles would have been impossible.
A steam engine, on the other hand, required nothing so elaborate as the internal-combustion engine’s accompanying clutch and gearbox, although it could benefit from a two-speed transmission for hill climbing. Yet the complementary technology the steam engine did need was never satisfactorily developed. The engine could be a model of simplicity, compactness, and power, but it was no better than the boiler that supplied it with steam. This proved to be a weak link in the system. The problem was the small size of the boilers that could be installed in passenger automobiles. A car’s boiler simply could not maintain an adequate reserve of steam unless the whole process was carefully monitored and regulated by the driver.
In the beginning this was not a drawback; it could even be seen as an advantage. When automobiles were first manufactured, in the 1890s, they were primarily viewed as playthings for the well-heeled and adventurous. Nobody bought a car to commute or run errands. So a high degree of operator involvement could actually be an enjoyable challenge, making the steam car a superior technology for its clientele.
Cars with internal-combustion engines required a fair degree of attention too; the manipulation of clutches and gearboxes called for considerable skill, and the maintenance of carburetors and ignition systems presented many snares for the unwary. As one early account had it, “to diagnose its ailments from the indirect tokens of sound and feeling, as must often be done, calls for a higher order of intelligence.” The basic mechanism of a steam auto was more easily comprehended, but its operation could be daunting. One 1900 account noted that “the steam vehicle is one of the simplest of self-propelled vehicles, but … of all vehicles it requires the most intelligent care to keep it in good condition.” As one British writer observed, “the early steam cars required a very sensitive ear and touch for their proper manipulation, and these are qualities in which the ordinary driver of a motor-car has hitherto been conspicuously lacking.”
While cars powered by internal combustion made rapid strides in what we would today call user friendliness, operating a steamer remained difficult and complicated. Abner Doble, who mounted the last serious effort to make a popular steam car, admitted in 1917 that the existing steamers were all “too complicated to operate, requiring intelligent and unfailing attention.”
The Stanley brothers, Francis E. and Freelan O., who after 1910 were the only remaining major manufacturers of steamers, made few concessions to the drivers of their cars. For women the arrangement of the Stanley’s controls must have been particularly annoying, for reasons described in a Stanley owner’s later recollections: “Directly under the driver’s seat and placed horizontally are two more valve wheels.… The awkwardness of their position indicates that they are for occasional use only, for the driver must reach between his legs to get at them. No automobile intended for female drivers would be designed like this.” The dashboard of a Stanley was festooned with gauges that required regular attention: boiler water level, steam pressure, maintank fuel pressure, pilot-tank fuel pressure, oil sight glass, and tank water level. Just to start the car required the manipulation of thirteen valves, levers, handles, and pumps.
Starting up was a chore that bedeviled the drivers of both steam and internal-combustion automobiles. Cranking the latter could be an adventure. If the operator forgot to retard the spark first, the engine’s kickback could easily break his or her arm. A steamer was much more reliable to start, at least during the first decade of the century, but it required a time-consuming series of operations and a wait of up to twenty minutes. One steam enthusiast explained the advantage: “I much prefer to wait than to spend time in repeated cranking on a hot day.” His views put him in the minority; most drivers preferred cranking. Even so, starting an internal-combustion engine was a real struggle until Charles F. Kettering devised the first effective electric starter for the 1912 Cadillac—another example of a complementary technology that was necessary for the gasoline engine’s ultimate success.
Early steamers also suffered from a short operating range. Since they discharged their spent steam into the atmosphere, they required as much water as fuel, and a trip of more than a hundred miles or so required a stop by a stream or watering trough to replenish the tank. One proponent of steamers argued that “the motorist who cannot afford to stop for a few moments after a hundred-mile run, and smoke a cigarette while an ostler throws in a few buckets of water, had better take the railway train.”
The automobile’s role changed dramatically in less than two decades, from that of a toy for the sporting rich to that of a conveyance for the masses. In 1908 there were still fewer than two hundred thousand cars on the nation’s roads; by 1917 there were three and a half million. The steamer’s shortcomings became serious liabilities under these circumstances. One industry analyst noted sadly in 1916 that “a little extra care was all that was required to run a steam car, but the hurrying, intense American public would not give that extra touch.”
If the internal-combustion and steam car both required a lot of their operators, the electric was quite the opposite. It had no clutch or transmission and no difficult starting procedure. Also, it was quiet and odorless and reliable. Its drawbacks were limited speed and range. The batteries that powered it were heavy, amounting to 40 percent of the weight of the vehicle, and they provided little energy for all that weight. (Even today, charged electric batteries typically produce ten watt-hours per pound, while gasoline produces six thousand watt-hours per pound.) Two of the greatest electrical inventors of all time, Charles Steinmetz and Thomas Edison, tried unsuccessfully to develop an improved car battery, leading an exasperated journalist to write in 1908 that “Mr. Edison’s bunk has come to be somewhat of a joke—a real joke.” The battery remained an inefficient source of energy.
Nonetheless, the electric car’s shortcomings must be seen in context. Its battery’s limitations were important only if the car was expected to perform as a long-distance conveyance. In the first years of the century, 98 percent of all car trips covered fewer than sixty miles, and speeds averaged twenty to twenty-five miles per hour. For short-range driving, the electric car was often the best available. Its capabilities were well illustrated in 1908, when a woman who owned a Studebaker electric (top speed: seventeen mph) challenged the owner of a forty-horsepower gasoline-powered touring car to a race through Philadelphia. The rules of the contest stipulated that each driver had to make twenty-five stops over ten miles, to simulate a normal round of shopping and social calls. City congestion offset the gasoline car’s speed advantage, and the need to crank it after every stop hampered it further. The electric won by ten minutes.
The practicality of electric cars could have been considerably increased by the development of a network of battery-charging stations. Curbside chargers were installed in some cities, but never extensively. Battery-exchange stations could even have been set up to make electrics useful for long-distance travel. Instead of being filled with a tankful of gas, the cars would have picked up fresh batteries in exchange for spent ones. The technical and economic problems were difficult but hardly insurmountable.
That, of course, never happened. Electric-car manufacturers never produced more than six thousand cars in a year, and their product slowly vanished. As with steam cars, the technical limitations are usually blamed, but the electric’s failure has also to do with the nature of the car’s customers and manufacturers. In fact, because of the users that it attracted, the electric’s very virtues became part of its undoing. Its reliability, silence, cleanliness, and ease of operation endeared it particularly to women drivers, who were also less likely than men to be put off by its limitations. A 1915 magazine article extolled the electric’s appeal to a woman: “She knows that it fulfills all of the demands of her daily routine of calling, shopping, and pleasure seeking. She knows that she likes to run it because there is a certain charm in its simplicity of operation and control—a sort of mild fascination. She knows, too, that she can step into its beautifully cushioned and brocaded interior, enjoy every minute of her ride and arrive at her destination as fresh and spotless as when she started.”
As long as women were the primary clientele for electric cars, men weren’t likely to buy many, a matter noted by one automobile journal: “The fact that anything, from a car to a color, is the delight of the ladies is enough to change his interest to mere amused tolerance.… Having imagined effeminacy into the electric, he dismisses it from his mind and buys a gas car without a struggle.” One manufacturer, hoping to win male buyers, introduced in 1915 a low-slung, fast-looking electric roadster. It changed few minds.
Electric cars suffered also from their image as a luxury for the wealthy. They were usually cheaper to operate and maintain than gasoline cars, but they were extremely expensive to buy. In 1913 the average electric cost twenty-eight hundred dollars—the equivalent of roughly thirty-five thousand dollars today—while a Model T could be had for a little more than six hundred dollars. And the price of electrics was actually rising while that of gasoline cars fell.
The rising price tag resulted partly from the adoption of better batteries, but the main reason was the attitudes of the manufacturers. They saw their electric cars, as one journalist put it, “as a thing to be marketed only in comparatively small quantities to a leisure class.” One industry analyst complained that “we advertise and teach our dealers and their salesmen to talk luxurious appointments, upholstery to match gowns and liveries, coach work and finish beyond compare. … Why create the impression one must be a millionaire to own an electric?”
Catering to a small and stable market, the makers of electric cars were little inclined to pursue lower prices. Indeed, while Ford showed the world the profitability of mass production, one description of an electric-auto factory boasted that “there is little place for the uneducated laborer in the plant.” One industry analyst complained that “the high price of electrics is caused mostly by extravagant methods which require a large marsin to provide for the waste.”
If the manufacturers of electric autos failed to help themselves, another industry also served them less well than might have been expected. Electric-utility companies might have found in electric cars at least a partial solution to a perennial problem of power generation—making optimal use of installed capacity in the face of widely fluctuating demand over the twenty-four hours of each day. Thomas Edison suggested that power stations go into the garage business to stimulate the demand for electric vehicles; his advice went unheeded. Meanwhile, oil companies aggressively set up outlets to fuel internal-combustion cars.
The small size of the electric-car market was partly to blame for this. Electric-company officials sometimes argued that they would get more involved only when the manufacturers reduced the price of the cars. So a vicious circle was drawn. The small market kept the power companies from building more charging facilities, and the lack of charging facilities helped keep the market small. And there was little promise of economic benefit for the power companies anyway; one power-station manager estimated that keeping the batteries of one electric truck charged would produce no more revenue over a year than powering eighteen electric irons.
Compelling as they were, these cost considerations were ultimately of secondary importance. The limited speed and acceleration of electric cars doomed them for most motorists. Even if electric cars were perfectly sufficient for most transportation needs, automobiles have never been viewed solely in that light. The automobile was maturing into a practical transportation tool, but it never ceased to be an instrument of fun and excitement. The electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz was way off the mark when he claimed in 1914 that “the two characteristics which gave the gasoline car the dominance—high speed and high mileage—ceased to be of importance when the automobile dropped from a sporting appliance to a business commodity.” Steinmetz predicted that within ten years a million electric cars would be on the nation’s roads. No such thing could happen as long as very many automobile buyers were attracted by the sportiness of internal-combustion cars.
By 1917 both steam and electric cars were heading for extinction. The market for automobiles had been changing; the changes had brought different technical demands, and the shortcomings of the electric car and the steamer had grown more evident as the internal-combustion automobile had rapidly improved. The production of six- and eight-cylinder engines and better-balanced crankshafts had greatly reduced the gasoline car’s vibration, destroying one of the chief competitive advantages of the steam auto. And the introduction of the gasoline car’s electric starter co-opted one of the main selling points of the electric car.
Undoubtedly, some of the choices that resulted in the triumph of the internal-combustion engine were made on the basis of production economies and profit maximization, as well as unthinking technical conservatism and plain sloth. But it may be fairly asserted that if steam, electric, or some other power source had met the needs of a significant group of automobile buyers, the technology would not have been completely eclipsed by internal combustion. The automotive industry was much more fragmented in the first decades of the century than now, with dozens of manufacturers competing for sales at any given time. Intense competition stimulated innovation, and manufacturers produced automobiles with abundant new features.
Since 1917 or so, many incremental improvements have made the internal-combustion engine vastly more powerful, reliable, and economical, but there have been few serious efforts to replace it with anything radically different. Chrysler made a few sallies into the gas-turbine field in the 1950s and 1960s; General Motors came close to mass-producing cars with Wankel engines in the 1970s and is now working on a marketable electric car. A significant number of cars are powered by diesel engines, but the standard car power plant is still the four-stroke sparkignition internal-combustion engine, of the type first built by Nikolaus Otto in 1876.
There is no saying that this will never change. Before the 1960s the control of exhaust-borne pollutants was never considered a major issue. As early as 1896 an electrical engineer complained that “all the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thick smoke with a highly noxious odor,” but although the problem was recognized, there was little reason to attempt to design a low-emission engine. There was no market for one because no motorist could realize an advantage by buying it; the market would exist only if everyone were required to buy one. Over the last two decades such a market has, of course, been created by government edict, and as this has occurred, the technical requirements have once again changed. In addition to the virtues modern drivers already expected from their cars’ engines, they now must expect to meet pollution standards. As the standards grow increasingly strict, the need may conceivably arise to replace the internal-combustion engine with something else. It would be a fine irony if the new power plants were descendants of the steamers and electrics that were shouldered aside by internal combustion so many decades ago. The changing requirements of motorists and society led to changed power-plant technologies in the past. Who knows whether it could happen again?