Tag Archives: steam

How a steamer engine works

Last post I wondered why a steam car doesn’t have a smokestack. Here’s what I think the differences are between a steam car and a railroad locomotive.

Here’s a simplified diagram of how a steam car engine works.

The locomotive burns wood or coal in a firebox to heat the water in the boiler.
The steam car uses kerosene or other liquid fuel that gets transformed into vapor through pressure. The fuel heats a burner which spreads the heat over a wide surface to heat the water in the boiler.

Here’s the burner. Kerosene goes in as a vapor—like the burner on a gas stove. The gas comes out through the little holes where it catches on fire.

In the locomotive, hot smoke and steam (from the cylinder) are combined and expelled through the blast pipe. They leave a vacuum behind as they shoot upwards which draws air into the firebox and makes the fire burn hotter.
In the steam car, the water in the boiler is contained—it’s under pressure as it becomes steam. The steam only leaves the boiler through a pressure-relieving valve or else it goes into a condenser as water, to be heated into steam again.

Here’s the boiler for a steam car.

I suppose there is an exhaust pipe for the burnt-up gas on the steam car but I didn’t see one.


Historic Engines – Stanley Steamer


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Oh, yeah, we got your steampunk

The steam engine and railroad extended civilization’s reach. There was hardly a city on Earth you couldn’t get to by railroad.

It seems almost selfish and ungrateful to point this out, but…once you get used to the idea of traveling wherever you want, you start to think about traveling whenever you want. How much fun would it be to travel where the rails don’t go—and not worry about a train schedule?

Of course people still traveled on horseback or by horse-and-buggy. Horses need food and water, though, and they poop (that made a town’s streets pretty unsanitary). If you travel long distances, you’ll want to replace your horse at intervals so you don’t run him to death. There are drawbacks to long-distance horse travel.

So you think, why not use steam to power a personal car—like a small locomotive? There were disadvantages: the boiler needs time to heat up before you can use it. An engine strong enough to propel a car has to be big. Fuel (coal or wood) takes up space. You have to keep feeding the fire. You need gallons and gallons of water. Many challenges to overcome!

Nevertheless, there were steam-driven road-machines, and they were magnificent.

The Stanley Steamer

Jay Leno takes us for a ride in his White steam car—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBU8IPyUyTk
And check out this baby—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9FuCDRRb7k
Face it, the guy really knows his steam—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Me8b0ed59s
I’ve been to the Pioneer Steam and Gas Engine Society shows in Western Pennsylvania and they are a blast! Maybe next year we’ll get our sanity back—http://pioneersteamandgas.com/
Here’s everything you need to know about how a Stanley steam carriage works—http://www.stanleymotorcarriage.com/Parts/howitworks.htm
I must admit, I can’t figure out why there isn’t a smokestack. I know the steam car is using liquid fuel instead of wood or coal. Is it because the whole design is contained and under pressure? I guess that’s it but I would expect there to be some exhaust.
This article makes the case for stream-driven cars—https://www.carkeys.co.uk/news/why-does-nobody-make-a-steam-powered-car

Big old machines

Railroads go everywhere

Soon railways stretched across Great Britain, Europe, the Americas, India, Russia, Africa, Australia—the whole world. Travel became safe and affordable. You didn’t have to be an explorer or spice trader or soldier to wander to a new country. You could travel as a ‘tourist,’ just for fun. Railway lines from neighboring countries linked up with each other. Land-locked areas were connected with port cities. And the father of all science-fiction writers asked himself, “With all these improvements in travel, exactly how long would it take for someone to circle the globe?”—but in French.

History of the railroad in Europe—https://europeanrailroads.blogs.wm.edu/briefhistory-of-railroads-in-europe/

And Canada—https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/railway-history

Here is the fascinating story of railroads in India. Their railway system began in the days of the British Empire (the Raj). The railroad changed the country and saved many lives in areas struck by famine and drought. Food and water could be brought quickly to remote parts of India.

Timeline: 165 years of history on Indian Railways

History of the railroad in Russia—https://www.railstaff.co.uk/2015/09/25/history-of-russian-railways-part-1-the-tsars/
George Whistler, the American engineer brought in as consultant to the Tsar’s project, was James’ dad (James the guy who famously painted his mother. That James Whistler).

In both Africa—https://utahrails.net/articles/central-africa-railroads.php
and Australia—https://www.infrastructure.gov.au/rail/history.aspx
there was no unified vision of a continent-wide rail system. Different regions or countries laid track but each chose its own gauge (so some tracks were wide, some narrow) which resulted in regrettable setbacks. The railroads couldn’t connect to each other. Many lines had to be rebuilt. Some locomotives and cars were unusable.

Latin America—http://logisticsportal.iadb.org/node/4213?language=en
Paul Theroux wrote a travelogue, The Old Patagonian Express, about his journey from a Boston suburb to the south of South America, all by rail.  He wrote a similar travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, taking a rail trip from London to Tokyo (he rode the Trans-Siberian Railway—all the cars piped in loud, over-produced Christmas music ha ha—just kidding). I read these 2 books decades ago, and dimly remember some adult content so I shouldn’t recommend them to you guys until you graduate from high school. On the other hand…

…I can recommend Jules Verne. If you haven’t seen the movie Around The World in Eighty Days (the good one—Michael Todd directing David Niven and practically every character actor or celebrity of the day), read the book first. It’s the most fun of Jules Verne’s work. Both book and movie (yes, there are cringey moments from today’s viewpoint) are highly recommended by me.




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Where the buffalo roam

The railroads in the east connected ports on the Atlantic Ocean and went as far west as Iowa. From there to Sacramento was over 1,900 miles of American MidWest—territory inhabited by the Shoshone, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and Pawnee tribes. Their centuries-old way of life would soon be ended by the railroad. The Plains Indians depended on hunting bison, the buffalo, that flourished in herds of thousands on the prairie. Buffalo need a tremendous amount of undisturbed land to graze on.

In the end it would take three railroad companies to build the transcontinental line. The 2 big ones, who would be laying the most track, had a race (of course) to see who could first reach Promontory Point in Utah. On May 10, 1869 the two tracks were joined together. The last spike to be driven was solid gold.

After that, you could board a train in New York City and travel clear to San Francisco—all by railroad. You still can—it takes 2 and a half days. https://www.rome2rio.com/s/New-York/California


UPDATE! My pal Diana (known to you readers as Ms Physics) pointed out this article about the return of the buffalo herds. What great news! https://returntonow.net/2020/06/19/bison-return-to-lakota-reservation-in-south-dakota-for-first-time-in-150-years/?fbclid=IwAR39CIg4w2RyhmtwfSrNDvn0bIbdkLO3clVsvw3tizMmojf8UkQWXJYSQoU

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Horses get a break

While Americans were traveling by packet-boat, barge and steamboat on the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, cities that weren’t connected by these water routes were suffering from lost business. They needed to get connected. The best way looked to be overland travel by railroad—the new train tracks.

In 1828 the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company began laying track to connect the port city of Baltimore with the Ohio River (the Ohio feeds into the Mississippi). Believe it or not, they were going to use horses to pull the trains. Luckily for the horses, in 1830 inventor Peter Cooper convinced the B&O to try a steam locomotive. He designed a small version of a locomotive—named the Tom Thumb—to demonstrate how efficient steam power would be. He took the board of directors for a train ride with Tom Thumb pulling them in an open-air car.

Train tracks are way more easy to ride on than rough prairie. Heavy wooden ties lay on a level gravel bed and steel rails are hammered onto the ties with spikes.


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Robert Fulton was a portrait artist who had the good sense to get out of the art business and into something that made money.

American portrait artist and inventor Robert Fulton was fascinated with the possibilities of steam power. He had acquired some political and financial backing—and an exclusive license to run steamboats on the Hudson River. After designing a steam-driven submarine, he came up with a steamboat design.

“Fulton had immense success with his steamboat Clermont in traveling the 150 miles of the Hudson River from New York City to Albany in just over 30 hours. Fulton recognized the economic potential of using steamboats to move people and goods up and down the Mississippi and in 1811 the New Orleans became the first steamboat on the mighty river thus ushering in a new era of river transportation and a romantic period defined by sidewheelers and sternwheelers.”

Just as we saw with the opening of the Erie Canal, farmers and small businesses suddenly had an affordable way to get their goods to a big market like New Orleans—or from there to the rest of the world.

They built ’em even bigger than this.

If you want the real flavor of steamboating in its heyday, you can read Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/245/245-h/245-h.htm
What a book! Young Sam Clemens is taught to pilot a riverboat by the master, Mr Bixby. He encounters all the characters of that time and place, because literally every class of people rode the riverboat.

You can still take a cruise aboard a steamship today: https://www.steamboatnatchez.com/
or build a scale model of the Clermont: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=et3ZgVyi968
whose gear train really works: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAVLH23qZcA

History of Steamboats on the Mississippi River


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Swimming upstream

By now I’m sure you’ve spotted the pattern: there’s a situation where people struggle to get from Point A to Point B, and some tinkerer comes along and says, “I bet I could make those people’s lives easier.” We saw how Watt’s steam engine turned a wheel to pump water out of a mine. Trevithick developed that idea into a steam locomotive to haul carts of coal. Stephenson improved the locomotive to move cars full of people along rails made of Bessemer steel.

In Great Britain and the United States, inventors worked on the problem of moving a vessel in water. Just like a locomotive, a steam engine would pump a piston to turn a wheel. This time the wheel had paddles and was mounted on either the stern or the sides of a boat.

John Fitch proposed a design with banks of oars, like an Indian war canoe.

John Fitch and James Rumsey designed steam-powered boats that operated on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and New Jersey. In Scotland, William Symington designed a boat for towing on the Forth and Clyde Canal. In 1801 his steamboat the Charlotte Dundas ran successfully upstream on the Carron River. The Mississippi is a big river with a powerful current. It would take a powerful engine to move a boat against it.


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The Great Steam Locomotive Race


It didn’t take long for smart business types to figure out a locomotive that could haul coal or slate might be useful to carry passengers on steel rails. The railway from Stockton and Darlington opened in 1825. The next year work began on the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. In October 1829, the railway’s owners staged a competition: who could build the fastest, most powerful locomotive to pull heavy loads over long distances? A race between steam locomotives! Thousands of people came out to watch, lining up along the route. Competition was fierce—but at the end of the race, Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Rocket’ was the winner, breaking the previous speed record by clocking 36 miles per hour!

This was the birth of passenger railways. The world became a place anyone—not just traders or explorers—could travel around.

These may give you some of the flavor—

Here’s a juicy slice of instructive kid lit from the Victorian Era—

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Hot and steamy!

George Stephenson is another one of those tinkerers whose genius is improving an existing invention. Like Trevithick, he worked in a coal mine. Stephenson took the steam locomotive to its next level, making it more powerful.

The basic principle of a steam engine is: fire heats water in a boiler; the water turns to steam; the steam expands and creates pressure; the steam escapes into a cylinder to push a piston. The cylinder has 2 openings to let in steam so that the piston is pushed back and forth as steam fills one side and then the other. The piston is attached to a wheel, so the piston’s back-and-forth motion is changed into circular motion.

How to improve that? One way was to run copper pipes from the fire through the boiler so water gets hotter. Then you could mix the smoke from those pipes with the steam exhaust (from the cylinder) in a smoke box. The super-hot smoke and steam want to quickly escape up through a blast pipe (chimney). That in turn pulls more air into the firebox and makes the fire burn hotter. That means more steam, more pressure—so the piston moves faster with more power.

Stephenson designed the cylinders/pistons closer to horizontal, so they lost less energy. He also attached them directly to the driving wheels. Trevithick’s design had pistons that turned great gears that turned the driving wheels. It transferred energy from a piston to a gear to another gear, losing a little energy with each step. Remember how concerned Harrison was with friction between moving parts of a clock?



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Coal-hauling horses finally get a break

Whenever Cornish horses get together they like to sing in close harmony.

I know what you’re thinking: if Watt’s engine could turn a wheel, why not use it to propel a cart or wagon?

Excellent question! I’m glad you asked it. With a steam engine, pumps kept mines clear of water. Much safer for the miners and their animals who worked down there. Wait—animals? Well, yes. As the miners got coal loosened from inside the mine, they’d load it into carts. The carts were pulled by horses. Their wheels rested on 2 rails so the carts wouldn’t topple over as they were pulled up the rough surface of the mine floor.

Eventually, a kind-hearted soul looked at horses struggling to haul big, heavy loads of coal (or tin, or slate) and thought: there has to be a better way to haul coal. Corishman Richard Trevithick is credited for inventing the first steam locomotive. “On February 21, 1804, Trevithick’s pioneering engine hauled 10 tons of iron and 70 men nearly ten miles from Penydarren, at a speed of five miles-per-hour, winning the railway’s owner a 500 guinea bet into the bargain.”


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