The History of Steam-Powered Cars

Geiser Steam Plow - Tractor
Geiser steam plow, Highland Farm, Fullerton, N.Dak.. F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo.

The automobile as we know it today was not invented in a single day by a single inventor. Rather, the history of the automobile reflects an evolution that took place worldwide, a result of more than 100,000 patents from several inventors. 

And there were many firsts that occurred along the way, starting with the first theoretical plans for a motor vehicle that had been drawn up by both Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton. However, it's important to bear in mind that the earliest practical vehicles were powered by steam.

Nicolas Joseph Cugnot's Steam Vehicles

In 1769, the very first self-propelled road vehicle was a military tractor invented by French engineer and mechanic, Nicolas Joseph Cugnot. He used a steam engine to power his vehicle, which was built under his instructions at the Paris Arsenal. The steam engine and boiler were separate from the rest of the vehicle and placed in the front.

It was used by the French Army to haul artillery at a whopping speed of 2 and 1/2 mph on only three wheels. The vehicle even had to stop every ten to fifteen minutes to build up steam power. The following year, Cugnot built a steam-powered tricycle that carried four passengers.

In 1771, Cugnot drove one of his road vehicles into a stone wall, giving the inventor the distinct honor of being the first person to get into a motor vehicle accident. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of his bad luck. After one of Cugnot's patrons died and the other was exiled, funding for Cugnot's road vehicle experiments dried up.

During the early history of self-propelled vehicles, both road and railroad vehicles were being developed with steam engines. For instance, Cugnot also designed two steam locomotives with engines that never worked well. These early systems powered cars by burning fuel that heated water in a boiler, creating steam that expanded and pushed pistons that turned the crankshaft, which then turned the wheels.  

However, the problem was that steam engines added so much weight to a vehicle that they proved a poor design for road vehicles. Still, steam engines were successfully used in locomotives. And historians,who accept that early steam-powered road vehicles were technically automobiles often consider Nicolas Cugnot to be the inventor of the first automobile.

A Brief Timeline of Steam-Powered Cars

After Cugnot, several other inventors designed steam-powered road vehicles. They include fellow Frenchman Onesiphore Pecqueur, who also invented the first differential gear. Here's a brief timeline of those who contributed to the ongoing evolution of the automobile: 

  • In 1789, the first U.S. patent for a steam-powered land vehicle was granted to Oliver Evans.
  • In 1801, Richard Trevithick built a road carriage powered by steam -- the first in Great Britain.
  • In Britain, from 1820 to 1840, steam-powered stagecoaches were in regular service. These were later banned from public roads and Britain's railroad system developed as a result.
  • Steam-driven road tractors (built by Charles Deitz) pulled passenger carriages around Paris and Bordeaux up to 1850.
  • In the United States, numerous steam coaches were built from 1860 to 1880. Inventors included Harrison Dyer, Joseph Dixon, Rufus Porter and William T. James.
  • Amedee Bollee Sr. built advanced steam cars from 1873 to 1883. The "La Mancelle" built in 1878, had a front-mounted engine, shaft drive to the differential, chain drive to the rear wheels, steering wheel on a vertical shaft and driver's seat behind the engine. The boiler was carried behind the passenger compartment.
  • In 1871, Dr. J. W. Carhart, professor of physics at Wisconsin State University, and the J. I. Case Company built a working steam car that won a 200-mile race.

Arrival of Electric Cars

Steam engines were not the only engines used in early automobiles as vehicles with electrical engines also gained traction around the same time. Sometime between 1832 and 1839, Robert Anderson of Scotland invented the first electric carriage. They relied on rechargeable batteries that powered a small electric motor. The vehicles were heavy, slow, expensive and needed to be recharged frequently. Electricity was more practical and efficient when used to power tramways and streetcars, where a constant supply of electricity was possible.

Yet around 1900, electric land vehicles in America came to outsell all other types of cars. Then in the several years following 1900, sales of electric vehicles took a nosedive as a new type of vehicle powered by gasoline came to dominate the consumer market.

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of Steam-Powered Cars." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). The History of Steam-Powered Cars. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Steam-Powered Cars." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).