Much of modern life depends on an easily available source of power. For centuries, that power was available because of human muscular effort or work done by animals. In 1705, Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine and the world entered a new era of productivity, no longer held back by the limitations of muscle power.
Why It Matters
- The steam engine generates power by taking advantage of a fundamental property of water. When water is heated, the liquid form is transformed to a vapor, creating steam. As a gas, the steam occupies a much larger volume than does the liquid. This expanded volume enters a cylinder and moves a piston, creating power to a machine. As the steam cools, it condenses back into the liquid state, which can then be reheated to generate more steam.
- The development of the steam locomotive opened the door to the use of steam in other kinds of vehicles. In the mid-to-late 1800s, many efforts were made to develop steam vehicles for personal transportation. In part due to the lack of decent roads, progress was slow. One major hindrance was the need for a boiler to generate steam. This component added extra weight and bulk to the vehicle, making it a very inconvenient means of transportation. However, early steam cars were very popular prior to the advent of the internal combustion engine.
- Although the internal combustion engine is mechanically more complicated, it has the advantage of lower weight and does not need the large boiler for water. In the very early 1900s, there were a large number of steam vehicles on the road, but the end was near. By about 1910, the advantages of the internal combustion engine made it the choice of drivers, and the steam car became an item for collectors and museums.
- Watch a video about steam cars at the link below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyAdCb04HzU
Show What You Know
Use the links below to learn more about steam power. Then answer the following questions.
- Watch the animation at howstuffworks.com. Why does a steam locomotive need to take on water?
- What was the first self-propelled road vehicle?
- What were some advantages of steam-powered cars?
- What were disadvantages of steam cars?
- What is the land speed record for a steam car?