Doble's Steam Car, In the Heat of Invention How the Steam Automobile Almost Displaced
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
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
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
Doble Steam Car - History and photo of the magnificiant car invented by Abner Doble, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Steaming Sensation - The water-powered masterpiece of the 1925 Doble, courtesy of Hemmings.
Vintage Auto Tachometer - Find an array of unique products based on the image of an analog tach that make perfect gifts for automotive enthusiasts.