“Why did the internal combustion engine win?”

ModelTFord1913

Ford's Model T, being used for fishing (1913).

Yesterday, we learned that in the early days of the automobile industry steam and electric cars were quieter, cleaner, faster, and more popular than cars that ran primarily on gas.

So why did the internal combustion engine win out?

In truth, none of the motoring options were without their faults. Electric cars had a very limited range, and couldn’t be recharged on the road. While the only good roads were to be found in town, having a range of only 18 miles wasn’t exactly a problem. But once good roads began popping up in between towns, folks naturally wanted to start using their cars to drive them.

Steam-powered cars had an even shorter range, but they could be recharged in the field. Fuel was relatively cheap for them as well, at least until the discovery of oil in Texas made gas affordable for the average consumer.

Of course, gasoline-powered cars still had to be cranked by hand–a process that if done incorrectly could break the driver’s arm. The popularity of gasoline cars got a boost when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter in 1912, eliminating the need for hand cranking.

But it was Henry Ford who all but killed off electric and steam vehicles by inventing a method of mass producing internal combustion engine cars, making them affordable to the masses. Thanks to Ford, in 1912, you could buy a gasoline-powered car for a mere $650, less than half of the $1,750 you would pay for a less efficiently produced electric roadster.

Of course, now that gas prices are rising again, electric cars are once again a common sight on the road. But did you know that steam-powered cars are also making a comeback?

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book, Did Dinosaurs Have Belly Buttons?, is currently planned for release in 2018. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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4 Responses to “Why did the internal combustion engine win?”

  1. Pingback: Electric cars and sustainable growth | Innovation Toronto

  2. Pingback: Automobile History down the Ages | Car History

  3. Pingback: Your Questions About New Truck Technology | Bites With Brandy

  4. Pingback: The Ten-Year-Old asks the most important question of her life | CATERPICKLES

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