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The Betamax effect... reflections on the development of engines

I've been thinking, lately, about how we got here. For the last seventy or so years the automotive industry has been completely dominated by the internal combustion engine. But this wasn't the story at the outset of automobile transport. Early car inventors experimented with all sorts of engines from steam powered, coal fired edifices to electric motors. What I want to know was how, with all the competing designs, we came to adopt engines fuelled with petrol (and its close cousin, diesel).

Was the petrol engine truly the best solution to the problem of propelling a carriage forward? Did it reach this dominant position by being the most efficient, cleanest or fastest power source? Or is there more of a back story, like Betamax and VHS video where the superior technology was not that adapted by the mass market?

First up, the steam powered  car.

Stanley _Steamer

Steam was the motive force of the industrial revolution. From the moment the first steam pump was invented it was pretty much inevitable that the ingenious engineers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century would try and use the steam engine to move people from a to b.  The first 'steam road locomotive' was developed in 1784 by prolific engineer, William Murdoch. Murdoch worked for the Cornish based Boulton and Watt engines and his automobile was a sideline to his main job designing steam pumps and other mining and mill engines. It seems unlikely, however, that Murdoch made a full sized version for carrying people as his employer didn't encourage his experiment.

By 1801, however, the first candidate for steam powered car was roaming the roads of Cornwall, built by local engineer - and neighbour to William Murdoch - Richard Trevithick.

Early steam engines, used in mines and mills, worked on the condensing principle: as hot steam in the piston shaft cools and condenses it creates a vacuum,  effectively 'pulling' the piston into the space. Trevithick, however, created steam engines in which it was the pressure of the hot steam that moved the pistons. These engines were lighter and more efficient than condensing engines - and more suitable for propelling vehicles.

Steam engines are external combustion engines: although they rely on combustion to heat the water which produces the steam, the fire and the water are always separated. Early steam engines used fires fed with coal to heat the steam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the development of locomotives was concentrated in mining areas where coal was plentiful. In these seething engineering hotspots there was great competition to improve machinery and the conditions encouraged development. Raw materials were freely available and the constant improvements in engine power and efficiency directly affected the extraction of coal and minerals.

Because the heat source and the steam are separate, it's possible to use any kind of fuel - as long as water is heated to the required temperature to create steam. Whilst coal was abundant, and the obvious fuel choice in England, Czech engineer Joseph Bozek used oil to fire his 1815 steam driven machine. Of course, in theory it's possible to drive steam vehicles with all manner of fuels - from tiny nuclear reactors to burning wood.

The age of steam lasted over a century - with steam phaetons, buggies and coaches flowering throughout the Victorian era. The land speed record was taken by a steam powered vehicle - the Stanley steam car - in 1906 with a speed of 127mph. This record stood until 1910.

Whilst steam advanced throughout the first half of the twentieth century, culminating in cars which started with the turn of a key and were ready to roll within forty seconds, the competition from internal combustion engines became invincible. Steam declined to a vanishingly small proportion of vehicles after the second world war.

Lightning -electric -car

Electric vehicles

So what other early options were swept aside by petrol driven engines? The electric motor driven car is surely a latter-day invention, product of recent concerns about emissions and pollution. In fact, neither concerns about air quality nor electric powered vehicles are new.

The first electric cars were made in 1880 (although some experimental prototypes were created as early as the 1830s). London designer Thomas Parker (also responsible for the electrification of the London Underground) produced a production electric vehicle in 1884 and over the next few years electric vehicles became a popular choice. Parker's vehicle ran on his own design of high density rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries of the era were lead-acid batteries (invented in 1859) and this was not to change - apart from tweaking - for decades. 

Electric vehicles were most popular in the US, where, by 1900, 38% of cars were electric vehicles, 40% were steam powered whilst only 22% were petrol fuelled. Electric vehicles were valued as cleaner, quieter and more economical than petrol driven cars even back in the early twentieth century.

However, within twenty years, their fortunes were to dwindle. The early electric vehicles were the victims of dual forces of oil discovery and the Ford Model T. Oil provided a plentiful (and cheap) fuel whilst Henry Ford's invention of the mass production process for cars reduced the manufacturing costs of vehicles enabling them to be marketed at a lower price and bought by many more people.

And as the Model T's star rose, the fortunes of the internal combustion engine rose with it. With these efficiently produced petrol vehicles retailing at less than half the price of electric vehicles, it's not surprising that they were in the ascendency. The infrastructure for refuelling developed in parallel with the growth in production and use, similarly outstripping that for electric motor driven cars. With refuelling concerns and shorter ranges, electric vehicles were limited to city use - although battery exchange programmes were launched that potentially extended the journeys electric vehicles could make, they were too late. The very popularity of petrol cars made them the dominant force, all but wiping out electric vehicles within twenty years.

Electric cars have seen sporadic revivals of interest throughout the twentieth century - but none that really took hold until the 1990s. If you want more about contemporary electric vehicle development, look no further than this blog - and our posts on electric vehicles and Tesla's amazing battery development.

Model -t -ford

The internal combustion engine


We know it, we love it and it's everywhere. But this wasn't always the case. Somewhat alarmingly, the very early internal combustion engines (1820s-1880s) ran on gas - with experimental engines running on hydrogen, oxygen and also coal gas. Essentially, all these engines work by igniting gas and using the explosive force to move the pistons which drive the vehicle. For the development of the first petrol driven internal combustion engine in the late 1880s we move over the channel to Germany and some familiar names Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. The beauty of the petrol engine is that, although it works by igniting petrol vapour, the fuel is stored and carried as a liquid, which is much easier to transport and handle than gas. The first production vehicles with these engines were manufactured by Benz in 1888.

The 1880s were a busy time for invention and motor transport. The competing technologies for automobile transport arose pretty simultaneously - and over the next decade or so all became popular.  Developments were rapid with hundreds of small companies manufacturing and developing vehicles - and innovations came thick and fast.

As the industry settled on petrol engines, more and more effort went into their development. Engine sizes increased and, with multi-valve and overhead camshaft technologies, became faster and more sophisticated. The number of cylinders also increased - up to an incredible V16 made by Cadillac in the 1930s. Other innovations include the elegant Wankel engine, initially patented in 1929, in which all the parts move in the same direction (as compared to pistons in a normal engine which reverse direction at the end of each stroke). Not to mention that more recently, we've revisited the use of gas in internal combustion engines with cars driving on LPG and natural gas.

The game changers were barely to do with these developments, however. The game changers which pushed the development of internal combustion engine cars from novelty rides to important modes of transport were simplicity, price and refuelling infrastructure - and to some extent, the dominance of one technology accelerated the growth of driving through economies of scale.

In summary, once petrol driven cars were started with ignition rather than crank handles they could compete with electric vehicles for convenience. The introduction of the 'affordable' Model T crushed competitors, and with them the technologies they incorporated.  And finally, with the ascendency of the petrol driven mass production car, the infrastructure to support it outstripped the alternatives. With a network of petrol stations, people could drive further in their petrol vehicles with a minimum of range anxiety.

And this is where  we see the similarities with the VHS / Betamax model. Betamax may be a far superior way of recording moving images to magnetic tape, but when it came down to it, more films were available to hire on VHS. Which meant more people bought VHS players, and more video rental stores offered more VHS films because more people wanted them. A self-reinforcing trend. The selection of technology isn't always logical - sometimes it just happens. If the Model T had been an electric vehicle, it's very likely that things would be very different now.

But here's another thought. In the fullness of time, videos (and the debate about vide standards) have been more or less consigned to history as we all download Netflix. There are, quite often, game changers just around the corner.

Self-driving car, anyone?

This article was first published on Diary of a serial car lover - the blog of Direct Gap.

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