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"The Horseless Carriage" The New York Times, 1896

Discussion in 'Electric Vehicles' started by Robert.Boston, Feb 4, 2012.

  1. Robert.Boston

    Robert.Boston Model S VIN P01536

    Oct 7, 2011
    Portland, Maine, USA
    Published April 19, 1896. This is a long read, but there is interesting history and some wonderful nuggets along the way. Enjoy!


    Will the Problem be Solved by Electrical Application?

    Gas and Gasoline Engines Have Not Proved Sufficiently Powerful—They Are Noisy, Disagreeable, and Cumbersome—First Horseless Carriages Made over a Century Ago—The Problem of Making a Good Storage Battery

    Few who read about the horseless carriages, or automobiles, now attracting much attention, realize how far back their invention extends. It is common for us to believe that all such inventions, which indicate a very high order of civilization, belong wholly to the close of the nineteenth century. We can hardly realize that the age when men wore wigs, frills, and silk stockings could produce a man with a brain so practical as to grasp the idea of finding a substitute for the horse. The fact is, however, that over 100 years ago human ingenuity was striving for a horseless carriage.

    We must go back at least to 1786—how much further it is impossible to say. In that year William Symington made a steam road wagon, shown in Fig. 1. This was made when the steam engine was still very crude. In this wagon the force of the piston was not communicated to the driving wheels by means of a crank and connecting rod, as it is to-day in all similar cases, but, instead, a gear wheel and rack were used. The connecting rod and crank were in use at the time, but there were many who considered them inferior to the rack and gear. This, no doubt, explains Symington’s course.
    NYT Fig1.jpg
    The sketch shows the inventor’s idea was to make the steam engine replace horses, as it is mounted on an axle separate from the coach. As the engine was placed on the hind wheels, it seems to be a case of placing the cart before the horses. The seat on the front end of the coach, and the steering handle in front of it, will make clear the general arrangement of the vehicle.

    These facts should serve to cool the ardor of those who believe we are living in such a fast age that we undertake to do things which our forefathers never dreamed. In this case, at least, we see that we are not ahead of them in thought, and that our great advance in science and the mechanical arts has not enables us to improve on their work to such an extent as to justify the assumption that we have achieved a complete success in a field in which they failed.

    A glance at Mr. Symington’s wagon is enough to convince any one familiar with such matters that great results could not be expected from it, and as very few inventors made any efforts in this field for seventy-five years, it is reasonable to conclude that its operation was not only unsatisfactory, but so far from perfect as to be disheartening. From 1786 up to about 1860 probably not more than six or seven attempts were made in this line, but since that time more or less activity has been displayed.

    Some time between 1860 and 1862 Mr. Roper of Roxbury, Mass., constructed a steam vehicle. He has devoted much time to the problem since then. At about the same period Mr. Bolton of Elizabeth, N. J., constructed a steam carriage, and later exhibited it in operation at the State Fair at Waverly.

    An inventor of Newark, N. J., about 1868, created excitement by bringing out a steam man that was to be placed in front of a carriage and run along with it at racing speed. But it never ran, although it could be made to work its legs when hung up in the air.

    There are so many objections to the use of steam for carriages or even ordinary business wagons that it is difficult to see how it can be made successful, but the inventors working on that line evidently have hopes, for they are attacking the problem with increasing energy. When one considers the care and attention a small steam engines requires to keep the fire from getting too hot or from going out and the water in the boiler from getting too low, he cannot help believing that there is but little on which to hang his hopes. Small engines, in addition, are noisy, dirty, and disagreeable on account of heat, smoke, and unpleasant odors.

    The inventors seemingly scout these objections, however, for their sole aim appears to be to overcome mechanical difficulties. They seem to believe that if they can only produce a vehicle that will run at a high rate of speed, with enough power to overcome obstacles and obviate danger of being caught in the mud, they will succeed in effecting a perfect solution of the problem. As the mechanical difficulties are so great, such trivial things as a little dirt or noise or smoke are not considered. But the unappreciative public cannot be expected to take this view. Many inventors, realizing this, have endeavored to find some other motive power. Nothing promising was available in that line until a few years ago, when gas engines began to be used extensively for industrial purposes.

    Now it is thought that as these engines require no boiler and can be fed from a small tank charged with gas under high pressure, their use would remove several of the most objectionable features of steam engines. This is true to a great extent, but, while they remove some objections, they introduce others. One of the greatest drawbacks of the gas engine is that it will not start of its own accord, but must be set in motion by turning the flywheel by hand. This, as can be readily seen, is a serious defect, as the only way of using it is to keep it running all the time, and effect the stopping and starting of the carriage by throwing the running gear in and out of connection with the engine. Some of the gas motors now being made for vehicles, however, are said to be so constructed as to be self-starting.

    Inventors have been working with gas engines about twelve years. Several other kinds of engines of a similar character began to come to the front about eight years ago. Some of them use gasoline, others naphtha, and others kerosene. They all work substantially on the same principle as the gas engine. Electric motors have also been tried, but so far the results have not been better than those obtained with gas and oil engines.

    Inventive genius did not receive much encouragement in this field until within the last two years. A horseless carriage race was inaugurated in June, 1894, between Paris and Rouen. It drew public attention to the number of self-propelling vehicles in use and their ability to travel over ordinary roads so that they could actually undertake a contest over a long distance. This race was followed by another in June last year, and the great increase in number of competitors showed that the first one had not only stimulated inventors, but had largely increased the interest of the general public.

    This second race was run between Paris and Bordeaux, and the performance of some of the most successful contestants raised the hopes of the more enthusiastic to such a pitch that they felt sure the era of self-propelling vehicles had begun, and that by the end of the century a horse drawing a wagon would be a rarity. But these hopes seem doomed to disappointment.

    The Paris and Bordeaux contests were followed by a third race at Chicago, Nov. 2, 1895. This race, if not a Waterloo for horseless carriages, was at least a very serious set-back. The condition of the track was such as to severely test the pulling qualities of the vehicles, and, according to the report of the committee in charge, they all showed weakness. From this, it would appear that, while the power developed is sufficient for all ordinary purposes on roads in good condition, it is not sufficient under unfavorable conditions. It is claimed that the vehicles entered in Chicago were not as perfect as those used in France, but this is not probable. To admit this is to concede that American inventive genius is not equal to European, while in the mechanical field we are ahead of the world. Furthermore, some of the Chicago carriages had the same types of motors used in several of the most successful contests in the last Paris race.

    At Chicago two electric wagons were tried, and, strange to say, they were not much better in the matter of power than the gas and gasoline motors. When one considers the herculean work performed by trolley cars, he cannot but believe that this weakness was due to lack of skillful designing.

    The great success of trolley cars is due in great measure to their ability to draw an almost unlimited load. All attempts in former years to operate street cars by steam, gas, and other means failed in this respect. The cars would run well enough on level track, but would not work on steep grades with heavy loads. This trouble was never experienced with electricity. A trolley car, even if loaded to its utmost capacity, will run up a grade without any apparent effort; not even with a heavily loaded truck behind, does its speed slacken much. Now, if electric motors can do such tremendous work on cars, there is no good reason why they should not do equally well when attached to a carriage or wagon; if they do not, they must be badly designed.

    Not only did the Chicago contest develop lack of power for difficult service, but also showed that the smell of gasoline and imperfectly consumed gases was such as to be offensive, not only to the occupants of the vehicle, but to persons in the streets. It was also found that the noise caused by the explosions of gas in the cylinders of the engines was very noticeable, even at a considerable distance, and the the shaking of the wagon by the machinery was so great as to throw the apparatus out of repair and make it of short duration.

    The only palpable conclusion therefore is that the horseless carriages operated by gas or gasoline motors are not a success at the present time. They can be made to run well on a good road, and probably will be used to some extent until the novelty wears off; but until the power is increased, the noise and odors removed, and the shaking reduced to an imperceptible amount, there is little probability of their being extensively adopted, either for pleasure or business. Whether all these objectionable features can be removed only time can tell: the work before the inventors is very great, but their ability to overcome difficulties is also great, and they may prove victorious.

    Many people wonder why so little has been done with electricity, and why the experiments have failed to give satisfactory results. The reason for this can be given. The problem of designing electric motors that would meet all the requirements of self-propelling vehicles is difficult, though not beyond the reach of the most able electrical engineers. Such men, however, have devoted little or no time to the subject, because a perfect solution of this part of the problem would be useless unless a suitable storage battery could be obtained to furnish the electric current. Such a battery has not yet been made. Since storage batteries first came into use they have been improved much more than is generally supposed, and sufficient progress has been made to warrant the belief that before very long they will be sufficiently perfected for use for traction purposes with satisfactory results. In order to make them suitable their weight must be reduced, their durability increased, and the time for discharging them without overstraining must be matierally reduced. The first batteries made weighed about 200 pounds for each horse-power hour of capacity; they could not be discharged in less than ten or twelve hours without overstraining, and even then the wear and tear was very great. The best batteries now made weigh about 120 pounds per horse-power hour of capacity, and they can be discharged in about six hours without unreasonable deterioration.
    NYT Fig2.jpg
    Theoretically the weight could be reduced to about fifteen pounds per horse-power hour, the time of discharge considerably reduced, and the durability increased. It will, therefore, be seen that there is plenty of room for improvement. When the weight is reduced below say seventy-five pounds per horse-power hour, and the time of discharge to about two hours, electrically propelled vehicles can be made a success, providing the cost of keeping the batteries in repair does not exceed per year 5 or 6 per cent. of their value. There are several able electricians experimenting with storage batteries who believe that they have already obtained as good results as these. If the performance of their apparatus when placed in actual service should fulfill their expectations, the electric carriage would at once become a possibility.
    The complete solution of the automobile problem, from the resent outlook, cannot be very long delayed. The inventors working with gas and gasoline engines are doing their utmost to succeed, knowing that in electricity they have a formidable rival. Electricians, on the other hand, will not be vanquished if by any means they can avoid it. Therefore, between the two we may rest assured that success will be achieved as soon as human ingenuity can render it possible.
  2. Robert.Boston

    Robert.Boston Model S VIN P01536

    Oct 7, 2011
    Portland, Maine, USA
    So in 1896, the 85kWh battery would have weighed about 13,700 pounds! It appears that Tesla has got the battery weight down to about 10 pounds per horse-power hour.
  3. GSP

    GSP Member

    Dec 28, 2007
    #3 GSP, Feb 4, 2012
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2012
    Great article. I love the early days of the automobile, when it was an engineering struggle with nature to produce a product with acceptable performance. Styling and doodads were not the emphasis. High performance was not even a dream. Acceptable performance was the dream.

    That is one thing I like about EVs, the engineering quest for acceptable performance.

  4. AnOutsider

    AnOutsider S532 # XS27

    Apr 3, 2009
    So funny to read how ICEs were seen back then. "Noisy, smelly and disagreeable". The first 2 are still true, but people have come to get used to -- and even like -- the noise they make, and the smells are curbed somewhat making them more "agreeable". Electric drivetrains would overcome both if they can only overcome the cost and range issues (back then it seems it was power).

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