The steam engine was the driving force behind boats, trains and early cars. Follow along as we trace the evolution of the little engine that did. By Amanda Green
First century: Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria designs the first steam engine; it has a pedestal, an altar and a rotating ball – but no practical use.
Mid-1670s: French inventor Denis Papin builds a cooker that traps steam inside a vessel. After adding a valve to keep the device from exploding, he conceives a piston-and-cylinder concept using steam.
1769: The first vehicle to move under its own power, the Cugnot Steam Trolley, is constructed. The machine needs to stop every 15 minutes to build power, and on its first trip around Paris in 1770, it crashes into a wall. (Luckily for the wall, the trolley’s top speed is a hair over 3 km/h.)
1775: Scottish engineer James Watt improves on Thomas Newcomen’s engine design – which uses atmospheric pressure to help drive a piston – by adding a separate cylinder for cold water so the machine won’t waste energy heating and cooling the piston cylinder.
1814: English engineer George Stephenson builds the first steam locomotive to run on rails. The locomotive carries 27 tons of coal 137 metres uphill at 6,4 km/h. He later constructs the world’s first public railways.
1849: American inventor George Corliss receives a patent for the valve gear that leads to the Corliss steam engine, which has four valves for each cylinder and steam and exhaust valves at each end.
1896: Stanley Steamers use a fire-tube boiler to power the double-acting two-cylinder engine; they outsell petrol vehicles from 1899 to 1905.
1917: The Doble Model C steam car debuts at the National Automobile Show. The company can produce only 30 of 10 000 orders; it folds in 1931. (For the record, our own Jay Leno owns an immaculate Model E.)
2009: The 3-ton British steam car Inspiration – which uses a turbine rather than a piston engine – breaks the 1906 record for land speed by a steam-powered vehicle when it zooms to an average speed of 238,6 km/h. It takes over 3 kilometres and one strong parachute to stop the car.
2010: Uniflow Power debuts its generator, a small-scale reciprocating steam engine that can bring power to off-the-grid homes across the globe.
2011: The US Land Steam Record team announces plans to break the 2009 record with its Streamliner; it has a heat-regenerative external-combustion Cyclone engine that runs on many liquid or gas fuels. The vehicle hasn’t broken records… yet.
Video: Visit British Steam Car to witness the British Steam Car breaking the 1906 Land Speed Record for steam-powered vehicles in 2009