Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

What in the name of God is that?

with 3 comments


I never saw one of these before, it looks like something Dr. Seuss made up, doesn’t it? Well, he didn’t, this contraption is called a steam carriage and they really existed at one time. More specifically this particular device is called the Gurney Steamer, after its inventor Sir Goldsworthy Gurney. This puppy went into service in 1825, but was a commercial failure for two reasons. People were reluctant to ride atop a dangerous boiler filled with pressurized steam, and it proved more expensive to operate than a horse drawn carriage. A nifty period illustration and description can be viewed here.

A successor to this vehicle, called the Gurney Drag, had the passengers towed in a carriage behind the powered vehicle. It too was a commercial failure, though it is touted as the first ever powered land vehicle to carry passengers over a long distance, travelling from London to Bath (about 100 miles) at an average speed of about fifteen miles an hour. It was attacked by a Luddite mob though, and had to be escorted into Bath under police guard. New technology was not as universally admired in this day, large numbers of people were being put out of work by new steam powered factories, especially in the weaving industry. I have to admit, progress would be a bitter pill to swallow if it meant not only unemployment, but an end to a way of life.

Cugnot’s steam tractor…and the first “automobile” accident in history.

I hadn’t really heard of steam carriages before, because they usually aren’t considered automobiles in the true sense of the word, they get short shrift in the history books. The very first one was built by a Frenchman named Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, it was a slow crude device designed for moving heavy artillery pieces, not people. It could make two miles an hour and could only be used for about 20 minutes before it had to “rest” and build up another head of steam. The boiler was at the very front of the vehicle, and there was no bumper, so if it hit anything it would be sure to rupture the boiler. This is what happened in the first few hours of use apparently. Yes, Cugnot invented the automobile and on the first day also invented the automobile accident. What is truly remarkable about this vehicle is the fact that it exists to this day! It can be viewed at the Musée des Arts et Metiers, France’s “Smithsonian.”

Trevithicks steam carriage, world’s first vehicle designed for carrying passengers.

The experiments continued though, mostly with the idea of moving artillery pieces. A steam carriage intended for passengers was built in England in 1803 by Richard Trevithick. A replica of it was built recently and has been touring Europe. It was basically a carriage stuck on top of a crude steam tractor, the passengers were a good height above the ground. It was also a commercial failure but had the distinction of being the first self powered land vehicle in the world designed to carry passengers. This one frankly looks scary, I’m not sure I would want to ride in it.

The world’s first commuter?

Another interesting development was the “red devil steamer” built by inventor Richard Dudgeon in 1855. It was a smaller faster vehicle though it could still carry ten passengers. Mr Dudgeon used it to go to and from his place of business in New York City, thus he was the first car commuter in history. It so frightened locals and horses that city officials confined it to one street. Eventually it was destroyed in a fire, but he built a second one in 1866. At some point Dudgeon gave up living in the city and moved to rural Long island to avoid conflict with city authorities. A small boy would run ahead of the vehicle with a flag to warn people of its approach, as shown in the illustration.

The Stanley Steamer…the end of the line for the steam carriage.

Steam powered cars continued to evolve from here, and even after the invention of the gasoline engine in the late nineteenth century the steam powered car in the guise of the Stanley Steamer continued in production until the 1920’s, by which time gasoline powered cars had become so cheap and reliable that the steamer was relegated to history, car clubs, and the occasional blog post.

There was nothing particularly profound here, I just like to look at old illustrations and muse about what the people at the time were thinking and experiencing. In the age of space vehicles and stealth aircraft these devices look pretty crude, but they were the high tech wonders of their day. And while technology was not as widely appreciated as now, many must have marvelled at these amazing machines and known they were the harbingers of things to come.

In other words, this post was a break from the carnage in the world that I blather on about. No worries, tomorrow I think I will dissect one of the most misleading pieces of pro-war propaganda to show up in my in-box in years. That will be fun. Have a great day everyone.

(All but one of the above images predate 1923 and thus are considered public domain under US copyright law. The picture of the replica of Trevithick’s Steam Carriage is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: Bev Parker.)


Written by unitedcats

June 28, 2007 at 8:17 am

Posted in History, Science

3 Responses

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  1. This era has always fascinated me tbh. There’s a wonderful book by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (Gibson is the father of cyber-punk in many ways, along with Ridley Scott) called The Difference Engine that explores what the steam era would have been like if the remarkable mechanical computer devised by Charles Babbage (and others) in the mid-1800’s. The earliest difference engines would have been powerful mechanical calculators on the scale of the first military artillery computers like ENIAC, had the technology and machining skill existed to build one at the time of design.

    Babbage’s later refinements of the the difference engine, and his true masterpiece, the analytical engine, might have brought the world the computer age 100 years earlier than electronics did, had the ability to construct the necessary parts existed in the 1840’s. The analytical engine is a fully logical design for a powerful mechanical computer that would have rivaled the power and capabilities of early electronic machines if it could have been built. Later machines built to Babbage’s designs function precisely as Babbage predicted.

    The Gibson/Sterling novel is a wonderful exploration of the society that might have evolved had Babbage been able to build his computer in the age of steam, and that book actually spawned a sub-culture of cyber-punk writing and design called steam-punk, which combines high-tech and steam design into modern work, giving at once a retro-futuristic look that is completely unique. Fascinating post … thanx for reminding me of a truly wonderful book :)


    June 28, 2007 at 9:05 am

  2. Fun post. I love it when you write these (random?) history of science bits. More!


    June 29, 2007 at 7:10 pm

  3. Thanks, I am seriously considering splitting into two blogs, one for history/science and the other for war/current events. So I would spend 8-16 hours a day blogging instead of 4-8, not like I have a life.


    June 29, 2007 at 10:04 pm

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