“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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