From Horses to Engines: 1700 – 1920

A replica of HMS Bounty. Until the steam engine, ships were wind-powered (sail) or human-powered (in the case of galleys). Ironically, wind power was used five hundred years before we needed it.

Until the Industrial Revolution, radical innovation of transportation systems did not occur, as the world was gripped with war, disease, and religious fanaticism ever since the Roman Empire had collapsed some 1400 years earlier. The one exception to this is the advent of sail, which replaced galley slaves with canvas, utilizing wind power caused by Coriolis Force on the Earth’s surface. However, galleys were still in widespread use in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, as the tight quarters and shallow water favored their use; sail-powered ships could not maneuver as well as galleys, and generally had deeper draft. [The sole exception to the sail-vs.-galley rule were the Swedish square-rigged, single deck prams.] The comparative difference between the two can best be explained by studying the Battle of Grengam in 1720, where six Swedish warships inflicted severe damage on the much larger (61-ship) Russian galley fleet with cannon, until two Swedish frigates grounded in the shallow sound and two more were captured while they were routing. Total losses for the battle were 4 Swedish frigates for 43 Russian galleys scuttled after the battle, but as the shallow sound had been against the Swedes, the Russians quickly gained the initiative, and the Swedes had routed, the strategic victory went to the Russians; this was one of the first great engagements of the soon-to-be-formidable Russian Navy, and was partly responsible for the decline of the Swedish Empire and the rise of the Russian Empire.

James Watt’s Steam Engine. It was revolutionary for its time, and spawned a whole new method of power generation. This model was used to power factories well away from traditional water sources; it would be a while until the concept was applied to transportation.

The first real advancement for transportation was the creation of the steam engine by James Watt around 1775. [In reality, this was not the first steam engine, as Thomas Newcomen had created a working model some 60 years earlier; however, these were extremely inefficient and did not see much use, often being supplementary to the waterwheel as power sources until Watt improved the design.] The waterwheel was the main source of power generation for hundreds of years, using water to operate circular saws (at sawmills) or turn grindstones; it is comparable to the windmill in history and scope of use, and both the waterwheel and windmill are still in widespread use today, in modified forms. Watt’s steam engine allowed for factories to be located far away from rivers, a major improvement that has been argued to be one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution. It was fueled by heating coal, which boiled water whose steam then drove a turbine, generating mechanical power.

Robert Fulton’s steamship Clermont. This was the first time that steam power had been successfully applied to a mode of transportation. However, it ran on coal and wood, which could be problematic if either fuel was in short supply. A case in point of this shortcoming was exhibited in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where low fuel supplies forced the Russians into a disastrous position.

The steam engine was modified further over the next hundred years by allowing for the steam to be pressurized, allowing for the engine to be made smaller; regulating its output, allowing for consistent speed; and most notably, creating a compound engine, allowing for more power to be generated by allowing for steam to travel from one piston to an [introduced] second or even third piston without being lost before the full use of the steam could be exploited, vastly increasing the power and efficiency of steam engines. Steam engines began to replace sail in shipping as early as 1807, with the building of the Clermont, a paddlewheel steam/sail hybrid designed by Robert Fulton. Steam-powered ships had apparently been in use by the time of the First Opium War from 1839-1842; the British fielded four. Steam-driven warships also featured very prominently in the American Civil War, as they were the main component of both the Union and Confederate Navies, although the riverine warfare of the South prompted the Confederates to field ships that were powered only by steam; many Union ships were steam/sail hybrids. Steam power could be used in all weather conditions, and was generally considered superior to sail in nearly every way; the only battle in which sail defeated steam was during the Battle of Campeche in the Tex-Mex War of 1843, and then just barely, with the Texans only winning because of lower casualties. The only drawback to steam over sail was that sail ran on wind power, which was infinite, whereas steam ran on finite supplies of coal. This likely contributed to the decisions made by the Russian Navy prior to the disastrous Battle of Tsushima in 1905, since the Russians had to carefully regulate speed, direction, and route traveled in order to conserve fuel supplies; knowing this, the Japanese commander ambushed them, destroying or capturing practically the entire Russian fleet in a strategic victory the power of which was not seen again since World War II.

The miniaturization of steam power was not just beneficial for ships. Coal- and wood-fired steam power was used as the basis for the creation and expansion of railroad networks; the first steam locomotive was run by Richard Trevithick in February 1804, but was too heavy for the rails. By the 1830s, however, trains had been made useful enough and light enough to be of use in the United States, where they played a prominent role in the Westward Expansion. Steam power would continue to be dominant for rail power until the 1930s, when steam was replaced with diesel.

The Benz Patent Motorwagen of 1886. The first vehicle powered on an internal-combustion engine, it was a precursor to almost every vehicle that followed.

The first car powered by an internal combustion engine was the Benz Patent Motorwagen in 1886; unlike its [few] predecessors, this car was gasoline-powered, and although capable of low speeds, the idea was the birth of the gasoline engine as a viable source of power. [In fact, had it not been the start of a world-changing idea, it would probably only get a passing reference here.] Steam power was still in widespread use in cars, which were still relatively uncommon, until about 1920. A steam-powered car broke the world land speed record in 1906, reaching the still-impressive speed of 127 mph. The vehicle that did this was built by Stanley, whose Stanley Steamer (not related to the carpet-cleaning service) was one of the more famous steam-powered vehicles. Steam power was also used during the First World War, with many cars equipping retrofitted engines which included a wood-powered “gasifier”.

A 1909 Ford Model T. When coupled with the assembly line and Henry Ford’s domination of the auto industry, alternatively-powered vehicles would be relegated to the history books for 65 years, until necessity required that they return to the market, following the 1973 Arab Oil Crisis.

As gasoline-powered vehicles were still gaining a foothold, there was still room for innovation. Electric vehicles had been in use since the mid-1800s, although the creator is widely disputed; what is certain is that they had existed since the 1890s, as an electric vehicle broke the world land speed record in 1899, reaching 65 mph. Electric vehicles soon were relatively popular in the U.S., with several companies building them [the most famous of which was Studebaker]. Gasoline-powered vehicles widely replaced electric-powered vehicles by the 1920s, but unlike steam power, electric power had left a permanent mark – batteries and electric starters have been widely used in all types of vehicles since their advent.

However, steam was already on its way out by the beginning of World War I. Henry Ford, capitalizing on the idea of the internal-combustion engine – which had an excellent power-to-weight ratio and was very reliable – built his Model T in 1908, and after pairing it with the assembly line and the electric starter, had created one of the most famous vehicles in history. His monopoly on the industry destroyed much of his competition, and forced many competitors to fall in line behind his ideas or be crushed. Non-gasoline-powered vehicles would not return in force until the Arab Oil Crisis of 1973.

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