June 1 – Happy Birthday to the Steamy Stanley Twins

Posted on June 1, 2014

In the 1800s there were lots of people living in cities, and lots of those people had carriages of various types and sizes drawn by horses. I sometimes try to imagine what busy city streets would've been like back then!

There would have been a lot of horse poop, I bet!

When the auto-mobile – named because it could propel itself and didn't have to be pulled by a horse – was first invented, there were several types of engines. One of the biggies was the steam engine, and of course there was also the internal-compulsion engine run by gasoline.

Today's birthday twins designed, manufactured, and sold steam-engine autos. Because their names were Edgar and Freelan Stanley, their cars were called Stanley Steamers.

The Stanley brothers produced their first car in 1897, and in the next few years they were the leading manufacturer of cars in the U.S. Here you see Freelan Stanley and his wife at the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the northeastern U.S. – they took the two hours to drive up to the top as a publicity stunt for their auto business.

The Stanleys sold this original auto design to Locomobile and did a complete re-design for their own new business, the Stanley Motor Carriage Company. Their new design was twin cylinder engines geared to the axle for the back wheels. With this design, they needed no transmission, no clutch, no driveshaft....But they did need some gasoline, apparently, to run the vaporizing gasoline burner underneath the boilers.

By the way, there were safety valves, and even modern engineers agree that the steam-boilers were safer than we might imagine. No Stanley boiler ever exploded in use!

The Stanley Steamer used to race cars with early internal-combustion engines—and the steam-powered cars won! In fact, one world record stood for five years, despite the rapid development of better and better cars that was occurring in the industry.

You may wonder why the internal-combustion engine ended up winning out over the steam engine cars. In the decade of the 1910s, the internal-combustion engines improved their efficiency and power greatly. Also, the electric starter was invented, and it made gasoline-powered cars much safer than they had been when they were started by hand-cranking. Finally, Henry Ford's innovative production style with the assembly line drastically reduced the cost of his internal-combustion cars.

Learn more about cars – and the history of cars – here and here

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