Doble's Steam Car, In the Heat of Invention
By: John Shepler
Howard Hughes had a secret weapon. No, it wasn't an airplane. This was something he acquired long before Hughes Aircraft became famous. He was only 19 years old then, an obscure Houston teenager. But Howard had something fast, something few others had or could beat. It was a very special car. Extremely quite and surprisingly quick. With it, Howard Hughes out-raced all the rich young men of Houston. When he moved on to California, he left his Cadillac in Houston, but with him came his Doble Model E...an incredible steam car.
Abner Doble might be called a genius. His talent was not in composing symphonies nor discovering the mathematics of invisible particles. He didn't cure any diseases or write any enduring literature. His genius is the genius of the engineer. For what Abner Doble did was to take well known principles of science and make new and better products from them. The steam engine preceded him by a hundred years. The steam automobile had been hissing down the road for two decades before his marvelous Model E made its debut. Yet his masterpiece was so different that it was said to feel "like riding on a magic carpet."
Abner came from inventive stock. His grandfather started making miner's tools during the California gold rush. His family ran a machine shop that developed water wheels for mountain streams and wheels and axles for San Francisco streetcars. By the time he was eight years old, he was working in the shop for five cents an hour and as thrilled with technology as a boy could be. It was the turn of the last century, a time of many new inventions and high expectations. Steam was the superior technology. Gasoline engines were new and troublesome. There were electric cars, too. At least one model used solar cells to charge its batteries. But, like most of the electric cars we see even today, the range and speed were limited. Energy storage by electric batteries just doesn't have the capacity of fossil fuels...not yet anyway.
Well, what about steam? Steam locomotives were a major factor in building the United States. Steam ships made transatlantic crossings fast and commonplace. Steam engines in factories brought about the industrial age. Why not a steam car? Well for one thing, the power of steam was harnessed by heavy iron boilers with coal fire boxes and large reservoirs of water to replace the escaping clouds of, well, steam, of course. Steam cars took up to 30 minutes to get boiling, and then someone had to refill the water tanks every fifty miles or so. The Doble family car was a 1906 White steamer, which the teenage Abner Doble and his younger brother John were sure they could improve. Rather than tinker with gasoline engines, though, they started re-engineering the components of the steam automobile.
The Doble boys built their first steam car in the basement of their parents home. They cobbled it together from parts salvaged from other steam cars plus their own engine design. It ran. Not too well, but well enough to encourage them to keep at it. The started inventing better parts. First a boiler regulator, then an electric preheater for the pilot burners, an improved condenser to recapture steam and save the water, and a flash kerosene heater activated by an electric switch on the dashboard. By the time they incorporated these advances, the Doble steam car could travel 1,500 miles on 24 gallons of water. There was no steam visible in the air, and the car was ready to run in a minute and a half after starting. The almost silent Doble would accelerate from 0 to 60 in 15 seconds, remarkably fast at the time. In factory tests of the Model E chassis, one launched from 0 to 75 miles per hour in 10 seconds.
So, why aren't we driving steam cars today? Abner Doble was, perhaps, too much of a perfectionist and couldn't quit improving long enough to get into serious production. Investor money dried up, and he wound up in legal trouble over his financing. His inventive brother and partner, John, died of lymphatic cancer in 1921, only 28 years old. Abner himself promoted steam power as a consultant to prospective steam vehicle companies until he died in 1961. But in the late sixties, it appeared that steam might be a viable option to gasoline engines for lower emission cars. No less than William Lear, known best for his Learjet, worked on further advances in steam power components. In a few years, though, engineering minds had come up with better emission controls and more efficient gasoline engines, and steam no longer looked attractive.
Technologies rise and fall. The best minds of an age latch onto something promising and then develop it as the "best practice" of the time. Once mature, new inventions, often strange and in rough form, appear and begin to capture the spotlight. Today we're convinced that our gasoline cars and our microprocessors are the only logical way to go. But it wasn't that long ago that steam was the sensible form of power, and it may not be that long before microchips look old fashioned. It's fun to be involved in whatever is developing and also fun to look back on what was thought invincible decades ago.
Also visit these related sites:
Vintage Auto Tachometer - Find an array of unique products based on the image of an analog tach that make perfect gifts for automotive enthusiasts.
Stanley Steamer, White and Doble Steam Cars - An extensive site with many, many pictures of the famous steam cars.
The Magnificient Doble - Steam car clud featuring more about Abner Doble, including drawings of the chassis and steam generator.
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: May 25, 1998 as part of A Positive Light