Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 1)

Steaming Along – The erratic history of steam powered road vehicles. (Part 1)

Today, when it comes to road transport, there is a slow but steady move away from the internal combustion engine and towards hybrid and electric power. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was another challenger – steam. Steam was the power behind countless miles of railways and thousands of ships that travelled across the oceans. Surely steam could also provide power on the road.

It all started with Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, who was born in 1725. By this time the use of steam engines to pump water from mines was well established. But these machines were huge. Each needed a specially constructed building. In the 1760s, when Cugnot was working as an engineer in the French Army, his thoughts turned to the idea of a steam engine that could power a vehicle.

His aim was to produce a horseless gun carriage. This would be used to move heavy pieces of artillery. He called his design the ‘Fardier a vapeur’, which very roughly translates into English as ‘Steam Cart’. The Fardier had three wheels and weighed in at about 2.5 tons. This included a steam engine, a boiler and a mechanism to convert the back-and-forth motion of the engine into a rotary motion to turn wheels.

The first automobile accident. Credit Wikimedia/Public domain

It worked, but only just. The Fardier’s top speed was a sedate 2mph and it had to stop every 10 minutes or so to build up steam – so it could only travel about 600 yards at a time. It was also unstable and difficult to steer.

Despite these failings Cugnot’s invention is recognized by engineering historians as the first self-propelled vehicle to carry a human being. In other words it was the world’s first automobile. Fittingly the Fardier is also credited with being the cause of the first ever car accident. During tests, it ran out of control and crashed, at 2mph, into a garden wall.

Despite a second prototype being built, the French Army lost interest in Cugnot’s invention. The next serious attempt to make a steam powered road vehicle was thirty years later. A Cornishman called Richard Trevithick created a steam carriage which got the nickname ‘Puffing Devil’.

With an engine cast at a local foundry, the ‘Puffing Devil’ was assembled at a blacksmith’s shop near the town of Redruth. The first test run took place on Christmas Eve 1801. Trevithick had several passengers and one, Stephen Williams, wrote an account: ‘It was a stiffish hill … but she went off like a little bird. She was going faster than I could walk, and went on up the hill about a quarter or half a mile farther’. The first journey was a success and it is commemorated with a plaque on the hill. It was the first time passengers were carried in a steam vehicle. The trip up the hill also inspired a folk song called ‘Camborne Hill.’

Another test run a few days later did not end quite so well. The steam carriage broke down on a bit of rough road. It was mid-winter and there was a pub nearby, so Richard Trevithick and his friends decided to go there for a meal and some drinks while they worked out what to do next. Unfortunately they forgot to put out the fire in the boiler. The water ran dry and, with nothing to boil, the ‘Puffing Devil’ went up in flames.

A replica of the Puffing Devil. Credit – Chris Allen

Trevithick built a second steam carriage which he demonstrated in London. He was hoping to raise money to carry on his work. However the trial journeys he made just showed that a carriage pulled by horses was both cheaper and more comfortable. Richard Trevithick carried on working with steam engines, but from then onwards they were either stationary or ran on rails.

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