Steampunk Visions: 19th Century Designs for Steam-Driven Carriages and Cars

One of the most fascinating SF subgenres is Steampunk. Based on the massive expansion of science and technology in the 19th century, and the early, pioneering works of Science Fiction that was inspired by these, and in particular the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Steampunk is based on what might have been, if the Victorians had developed aircraft, cars, tanks and spacecraft. One of the genre’s classic, founding works is Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Gibson and Sterling were two of the inventors of Cyberpunk, the type of SF centred around Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and computer hacking. The Difference Engine was set in an alternative 19th century, where Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built.

Today’s cars are powered by the internal combustion engine, fuelled by petrol and diesel. They were developed in the late 19th century, and really became the dominant form of road transport in the 20th. But as far back as the late 18th century European inventors were trying to develop road vehicles driven by steam engines. In 1771 the French inventor, Nicholas Cugnot, created a steam carriage intended to pull heavy cannon. It was unsuccessful, but during the 19th century a series of engineers and inventors continued to try and develop one that worked.

There’s a chapter on this part of the history of the age of steam in the book, 250 Years of Steam, by Allan Bloom (Tadworth: World’s Work Lt 1981), complete with contemporary illustrations of what they were intended to look like.

These include Richard Trevithick’s steam carriage of 1803.

Steam Carriage 1

This was unsuccessful. The frame became twisted during trials. The carriage section was sold off, and the engine re-used in a rolling-mill for hoop iron.

W.H. James’ design, which would travel at speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour, have 15-20 horsepower, and carry 18 passengers, six inside and twelve outside.

Steam Carriage 2

The machine developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, demonstrated on 12th August 1829, carrying the Duke of Wellington.

Steam Carriage

Walter Hancock’s machines, who built his first steam carriage in 1824. He wanted to use them to provide a passenger service in London. These had a crew of three – the driver on the steering wheel at the front, and engineer at the back, and a boy to stoke the engine.

Steam Carriage 3

There was also Rickett’s experimental steam carriage, which had its boiler behind the driver and passengers. It was so successful that the Earl of Caithness order a similar vehicle.

Steam Carriage 5

These first attempts to create steam-driven cars were unsuccessful. They couldn’t compete against the stage coaches and railways. The experimental nature of many of these machines made them dangerous. For example, the Glasgow Court of Session ruled that the steam carriages used by James Naismyth and John Scott Russell to run a passenger service between Glasgow and Paisley were unsafe and could not be used on the roads after the vehicle overturned crossing a covering of loose stones deliberately put there to block the route by the town’s Road Trustees. Bloom considers that what really made them uneconomical was the high costs of the tolls charged on the turnpike roads.

There was considerable public opposition to the vehicles as well, as Bloom’s book has a contemporary satirical drawing of what one 19th century cartoonist feared the roads would be like, if the new machine was taken up. Looked at now, it seems very much like Albert Robida’s ideas of what the 20th century would be like from his point of view in the 19th. Here’s the satirical depiction of steam-driven automobile mayhem.

Steam Carriage 4

In the 1880s, Amadee Bollee Senior, le Compte de Dion, constructed a series of successful steam cars in France. These look very much like the early cars of the period, using the internal combustion engine, and eventually de Dion switched over to using petrol and paraffin as fuels, rather than coke, before finally abandoning steam altogether and concentrating on the internal combustion engine.

Steam Car

Above: De Dion’s single-seater 1887 steam tricycle.

The book also covers the early 20th century steam cars, like the Stanley Steamer. These look very much like the motor cars of the period, as indeed does de Dion’s 1887 steam tricycle. The technology is obsolete, though Bloom suggests it may yet make a come-back. The invention and development of these engines in the 19th century, and the drawing made of them, do make you wonder what the world would have been like, had they taken off.

And they also show just how close to reality some parts of Steampunk are. It’s a pity they never actually got around to inventing space and time travel, however. That’s very much confined to fictions of Wells, Verne and their fellows.

And finally, here’s this footage from Youtube of a recreation of Cugnot’s steam carriage, displayed at the 2011 car exhibition in Dearborn, Michigan. Enjoy!

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2 Responses to “Steampunk Visions: 19th Century Designs for Steam-Driven Carriages and Cars”

  1. Ed Hass Says:

    In 1824, Dr. Joseph Buchanan of Lexington, KY, built a 7-horsepower coiled-water-tube steam boiler that could raise steam in 10 minutes (compared to 20+ minutes for previous steam boilers), attached it to a farm wagon, and drove it under its own power through the streets of Louisville, KY. This is the first documented steam powered automobile ever successfully driven on American streets. The 1804 Oliver Evans machine was successfully navigated on the Delaware River in Philadelphia but broke down attempting to drive it on a street. The boiler of Buchanan’s 1824 auto was sold to power a cotton mill, and then a sawmill. It was then reverse engineered in 1850 to develop an improved version of this boiler, that could raise steam in under 5 minutes. This resulted in another self-propelled steam vehicle in 1853. The 1850 improvements were further improved in 1871, cutting the time to generate steam down to only 3 minutes, but this 1871 version was never used in a self-propelled vehicle..

    No illustrations of the 1824 Buchanan machine are known to survive. His patent drawings were destroyed in a fire at the US Patent Office. But there were witnesses to his 7-mile drive, and it was reported in the press at the time,

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