About 40% of American-made cars in 1900 were steam-powered

Thanks to recent documentaries and news stories, many Americans have woken up to the fact that electric cars aren't such a new idea. What's gotten less attention is that steam-powered cars were actually quite popular at the turn of the 20th century as well.

From Pacific Standard:

The steam-powered automobile may seem like a bit of a joke, but it was a serious contender for auto-supremacy at the dawn of the automobile. Of the 4,192 vehicles accounted for being produced in the United States in the 1900 Census, just 936 of them ran on gasoline, 1,575 were electric, and 1,681 ran on steam.

But the steam-powered car was quickly pushed out of the market...

Within less than two decades that distribution radically changed. About 99 percent of the 568,000 automobiles produced in 1914 America contained an internal combustion engine.

Why didn't the steam-powered car take off? For a number of inconvenient tech reasons, according to the BBC:

Substantial boilers and water tanks were needed with early steam cars losing up to a gallon (4.5 litres) of water every mile.

Stanley partially remedied this with the introduction of condensers in 1915, which turned much of the steam back to liquid water before it could escape. But even then they were still only achieving eight miles per gallon of water.

Another drawback was how long it took to build up steam pressure before a journey could begin.

A Stanley steamer owner's manual published in 1918 suggested that this would take between 10 and 15 minutes, but in cold weather it was likely to take much longer.

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Image: Buffalo Bill sitting in his steam-powered car in 1908, scanned from the 1974 book The Car Solution by Gary Levine