Dreams of Steam: The History of Steam Power

November 15, 1996 - February 23, 1997 
The Museum of American Heritage pays tribute to the Age of Steam in this exhibit, Dreams of Steam: The History of Steam Power. The age of steam is etched firmly into America's historical memories through its romantic association with railroading, folk songs, travels with Mark Twain on the Mississippi and the personal experiences of generations of Americans.

About 2,000 years ago, Greek mathematician Hero experimented with steam power, constructing a rudimentary rotary steam engine. A spinning ball driven by steam jets, he considered the device a toy.  More than 1600 years later, two British inventors began to turn steam power into practical devices -- Thomas Savery in 1698 and Thomas Newcomen in 1705.  James Watt further improved on their inventions, patenting several designs that earned him the title of father of the modern steam engine.

Applications of steam power grew during the 1700s, when steam engines began to find use powering stationery machinery such as pumps and mills, and its usages expanded with time into vehicles such as tractors, ships, trains, cars and farm/industrial machinery. The age of steam lasted almost 200 years, until the internal combustion engine and the electricity took over. Even so, efficient steam turbines are still used today for submarine torpedo propulsion, for electricity generation by electric utilities and for naval propulsion systems.

Exhibit Companion

Classification of Engines

Broadly speaking, an engine is a device that converts energy into useful mechanical power.  The term "engine" usually refers to heat engines -- engines that convert heat energy to mechanical energy. Heat engines usually consume fuel to produce the heat.

Heat engines are divided into two categories -- internal combustion (burning) and external combustion.  A conventional gasoline engine is an internal combustion engine; gasoline is burned inside the cylinders to produce hot gases whose expansion moves the pistons. Steam engines are external combustion engines; fuel is burned outside the engine itself, producing high temperature, high pressure steam which them moves pistons or a rotating turbine.

When steam is formed from water, it requires about 1600 times as much volume as the water from which it is formed. The force produced by this expansion is the source of power in all steam engines. In a confined space, such as a cylinder, the force is manifested as pressure that forces a piston back and forth in the cylinder, as steam enters from alternate ends of the cylinder. The steam is routed to the appropriate end of the cylinder by valves actuated by the motion of the piston. In a true steam engine, work is done by steam pressure, rather than by condensation.  The expansion from a liquid to a gas produces the pressure which pushes the pistons along inside the cylinders of a steam engine.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many different models of steam engines had been invented, so many in fact, that by 1908, even traditional Oxford was accepting mechanical science as a suitable subject for undergraduates. There was much to learn, as steam engines were everywhere.

The diverse models of steam engines can be divided into three general types: Stationary (factory),locomotive (trains, cars) and marine (ships. Each of these three major types is further classified as to the axis of the piston shaft or turbine cylinder (vertical, inclined or horizontal), by the type of valve gear ("D", piston, poppet or rotary), and by the number of cylinders (or turbine stages) used for expanding the steam (single, double, triple or quadruple expansion).

Stationary engines were produced with vertical, horizontal or inclined cylinders. Railway locomotives generally had horizontal cylinders, although a few specialized types were produced with vertical or inclined cylinders. Ships started off with horizontal cylinders driving paddle wheels, but quickly changed to vertical cylinders and pistons driving screw propellers through a crankshaft.

Early engines used the "D" shaped slide valve, but as machining skills were improved, these were replaced by poppet, piston or rotary valves.  Nearly all locomotives built after 1930 used piston valves. Most large stationary engines used rotary valves, which were greatly improved by the addition of the Corliss "drop cut-off" gear.

Because steam required about 1,600 times the space as the water from which it was formed, the pressure in a single cylinder engine at the time the exhaust valve opened could still be quite high. In order to gain efficiency, many engines were built with multiple cylinders that allowed the exhaust from the preceding cylinder to be expanded again in a larger secondary, tertiary or quaternary cylinder, again driving a piston.  In ships and factories, double and triple expansion engines were common, as their additional size and weight were compensated by added efficiency and lower fuel consumption.  Railroads tried double expansion locomotives, but quickly found that lower weight and size were more significant benefits than fuel economy.

Steam and Safety

The safety--or lack of safety--of steam was an important part of its history. The boilers which contained the steam were prone to explode. This occurred for a variety of reasons: undetected corrosion or furring of the heated surfaces, clumsy repairs, or failure to keep the water up to the required level, so causing firebox plates to overheat. As early as 1803 a safety device, a lead plug, was invented.  The plug was designed to melt if the firebox crown became overheated and release steam before worse damage was done. However, this device was not adopted widely.

After an 1854 explosion in England that killed ten people, the Boiler Insurance and Steam Power Company was started. Not until 1882, though, was safety legislation introduced in Britain.  In the United States there was no government regulation at all.

Following the enaction of safety legislation in England, the number of lives lost in England from boiler accidents fell from 35 in 1883 to 24 in 1900 and to 14 in 1905. During a comparable time period in the United States, 383 people were killed in boiler accidents. The problem of safety with steam engines was eventually reduced by the introduction of new forms of power, including the steam turbine. However, boiler accidents remain a fact of life even today, and continue to cause fatalities.

Another danger associated with steam locomotives was fires caused by the embers from the smokestacks. Since British trains used coke (a by-product of coal that burns without creating a large number of flying embers) as fuel, their builders did not have to worry about the trains igniting the passengers, the coaches and the surrounding countryside.  American railways, however had adopted the cheapest (at that time) native fuel, wood, and had to deal with the embers and live sparks escaping from train smokestacks.

In one incident in 1832, a New England railroad car was set on fire by a locomotive spark , burning $60,000 in paper money.  One angry passenger protested that not a single person traveling by train in the United States, "has not been annoyed, and either had his flesh or clothing burnt".  The spark problem was so apparent that over 1,000 patents were issued for smokestacks and spark arresters during the nineteenth century. Two conflicting conditions prevented the development of a practical design. An unobstructed draft was necessary for good steaming: an effective spark arrester necessarily obstructed the draft. Obviously a compromise was necessary.

The answer lay in the bonnet stack: It was by far the most common type of wood-burning engine smokestack. Usually identified by its distinctive funnel shape, it is named for the bonnet-shaped wire screen or netting arched over its top. The funnel-shaped outer casing, more than 5 feet in diameter at the top, is a hopper for holding cinders. The bonnet stack, invented In 1831, became one of the mast distinctive features of the nineteenth century American locomotive. By the early 1890s, the bonnet stack and other similar ones were abandoned for inside smoke box designs.

History of Steam Engines: An Overview

Hero was not the only ancient familiar with the concept of steam power. Records of a simple hot air engine, designed to open and close temple doors, are among records from ancient Egypt dating to 280 B.C.

A church existed in France that was equipped with an organ blown by air escaping from a vessel in which it was compressed "by heated water".  The date -- 1125 A.D.

In 1543 (only a few years after Columbus' initial voyage to the western hemisphere), Spanish naval officer Blasco de Garay attempted to move a paddle-wheeled ship powered by a steam engine. De Garay should probably get the credit for being the first to appreciate the use of steam for marine propulsion.

Edward Somerset, second Marquis of Worcester, England, is credited with being the first operating steam engine builder. In 1663, he invented an apparatus for raising water by steam power, and it was actually used for this purpose at Vauxhall, near London.  In 1698 Captain Thomas Savery (1650-1715), also of England, became the first person to produce and sell a workable steam pump for raising water.  It was crude, relying on hand operated steam and water valves. Because the maximum suction lift of the pump was only 25 feet, the receiver and furnace had to be located underground.

Steam Power and the Industrial Revolution

Between 1780 and 1830, in less than the space of three generations, the industrial world changed irrevocably. The world became a place where humans handled great amounts of energy to an extent inconceivable in the preceding agrarian age.  The defining feature of the Industrial Revolution was a dramatic increase in per capita production, made possible by the more efficient manufacturing processes of the new, steam driven factories.

The relentless force of steam, expanding out of boilers, powered the Industrial Revolution. It replaced the fatigue-ridden muscle power of humans and animals and allowed people to do things that muscle power alone could not do.  Before the 1700s, most factories depended on wind or water for power. Steam power inspired invention in many areas; ships, railroads, mills and mines, to name a few. Steam became so widely used that the period of the Industrial Revolution is also called "The Age of Steam". Though steam engines have passed the prime of their usefulness, their legacy remains, for they first put into human society the fantastic and fruitful notion of using heat to produce mechanical movement. It is this idea, more than any other, that has shaped our whole technical civilization. While it is difficult to specify the exact time and place the Industrial Revolution started, by by 1760 all the scientific and technological developments were in place to make the Industrial Revolution inevitable.

The Industrial Revolution started in England, and at its root was coal, which England had in abundance. Wood had been England's primary fuel, but the forests were being burned faster then they could be replaced. As a result, people turned to coal, but coal was not easy to mine. It was often found deep in the earth, frequently under water. Steam became the source of power to pump out the water and to lift to the surface the fuel the engines burned.

The Industrial Revolution had major social impact: It changed agrarian societies to industrial societies.  Populations migrated from farms to cities as cities became places of opportunity and personal development in ways that had never been possible in the closed, static rural society. However, industrial work was often more tedious, unhealthy and dangerous than work in agriculture or domestic industries.  Women and children were exploited until the introduction of protective labor laws in the twentieth century. The skills of many workers were made obsolete, and nearly all workers became dependent upon market forces far beyond their control. The machines seemed to become their masters. Eventually, workers found strength through common experience, developing labor unions and political organizations to correct the worst excesses and protect their interests.

In the long run, the Industrial Revolution has benefited most nations by providing an escape from the poverty trap; the cycle of low income, low consumption, low demand and low production. In some areas of the world, the process can be observed to this day. Despite the resistance of the warlords, monks, and autocrats being displaced by skilled professionals and merchants, the process of industrialization yields a new, large middle class endowed with a high degree of literacy, economic power, political influence and capital -- and willing to endorse quantitative measurement and experimentation.

A question to consider: Are there parallels between the role of steam in the Industrial Revolution and the role of the computer at the close of the twentieth century?

Dennis Papin's Piston Engine

Dennis Papin (1647-1712?) of France, distinguished as a doctor and scientist, produced in 1690 the first steam engine with a piston, and the first piston engine in which condensation was used to produce a vacuum. He is also credited with the invention of the safety valve, which proved more lasting than his engine design, which used external air pressure to move the piston, rather than high pressure steam. His engine design was more akin to that of a pressure cooker. Fortunately for French cuisine, he did not address this application.

Thomas Newcomen's Engine

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729), a blacksmith from Dartmouth, England, produced a machine which was unmistakably a true steam engine. Called an atmospheric engine, it featured a piston that was driven down by the pressure of the atmosphere, a partial vacuum having been previously formed within the cylinder. Newcomen's engines made it possible to open new coal mines that would have otherwise been unworkable. The Newcomen engine is apparently the first design to make use of the "walking beam" pivoted arm to transfer power to the driven device.

John Smeaton's Faster Engine

John Smeaton, a prominent English engineer (he coined the term, "civil engineer"), figured out how to increase piston speed, improving efficiency.  In 1773, his engines replaced two windmills in a drydock at the shipyards of Peter the Great in Constadt. (Kronstadt?) The drydock could accommodate up to ten ships, and had been imperfectly drained by the windmills, which took over a year to empty the dock.

James Watt: The Critical Improvements

Known as the father of the steam engine, James Watt (1736-1819) was born in Scotland, but did most of his work in England. (Perhaps he is the the model Scots engineer from which Star Trek's Scotty was drawn.) While repairing a model of the Newcomen engine, he conceived the idea of separating the condenser from the cylinder, resulting in a substantial efficiency improvement.  His 1769 patent also covered other improvements, such as steam jacketing, oil lubrication, and insulation of the cylinder in order to maintain the high temperatures necessary for maximum efficiency.

Richard Trevithick's Locomotive

As England turned from being a country that relied on trade and agriculture for its livelihood into one that based its living on the manufacture of goods, it needed a way to deliver materials and products quickly. Richard Trevithick (1771-1833), a British mining engineer, realized that the best way to harness the power of existing steam engines was a a locomotive. In 1801, he built the world's first practical steam locomotive, a steam propelled vehicle to carry passengers on a Cornwall road. Two years later, he built a locomotive that was able to haul wagons carrying up to 15 tons of iron.  A one-cylinder locomotive with horizontal boiler, horizontal piston and four driving wheels, it traveled nine miles in four hours on smooth metal rails. Its success proved that sufficient traction could be obtained without using gear wheels and and a cogged or toothed track.  Equally important, the Trevithick locomotive exhausted its steam into the smoke box or flue of the engine's firebox. This method of exhaust provided a forced draft for the firebox, creating a hotter fire, and was employed on all subsequent steam locomotives.  Trevithick also modified Watt's engine, modifying it into a relatively small, high pressure design of considerably reduced weight.

To show his improved locomotive to the worldly citizens of London, in 1808 Trevithick set up a circular track within an enclosure, charging admission at five shillings per head.  Although this amount was half of an average weekly salary, people rushed to witness the machine's performance.  The "few who were not to timid" rode behind the chugging engine until a rail broke, derailing the engine.  Before this disaster, Trevithick had vainly offered to race his engine with any racehorse for an uninterrupted 24 hours to see which could cover the greater distance.

Peter Cooper's Legacy

Peter Cooper (1791-1883) was a New York businessman who left a remarkable legacy as an entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist. The son of a Revolutionary War officer, he was apprenticed to a coach maker when he was 17.  After several successful years, he left that trade and established a series of businesses including cloth-shearing machines, an iron works, a glue factory and an isinglass manufacturing plant. He not only invented America's first steam locomotive, but also a washing machine, a compressed air engine for ferry boats, a water powered device for moving canal boats, and numerous other practical devices.  His iron works rolled out the first iron structural beams, and his unwavering support for Cyrus Field's Atlantic Cable helped make that venture possible. He also served for a time as the President of the American Telegraph Company.

Though he had only one year of formal schooling, Cooper was a strong advocate of a free public school system.  In 1859, he founded Cooper Union to offer free college courses in science, engineering and art. Classes are still open to any student who can meet the intelligence and aptitude tests.  He summed up his own achievements by noting that "I have endeavored to remember that the object in life is to do good."

By 1829, Cooper had constructed and tested his miniature rail locomotive, the Tom Thumb. It was constructed using musket barrels for boiler tubes, but managed the 13 mile stretch of B&O track between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills in good time, succeeding in reaching Cooper's objective of successfully demonstrating the potential of the steam locomotive to railroad executives. Three years later, the B&O rails stretched 137 miles north and west--the longest reach of railroad track in the world.

The Giants of Steam

Three individuals and their early contributions deserve particular recognition, as they laid the foundation for what came after.

Thomas Newcomen's Engine

Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) of England, is credited with inventing the first true steam engine. An iron master by occupation, he had an intimate knowledge of the day-by-day pumping problems in tin mines.  He spent at least twelve years in experimentation before he built a full-scale steam engine. Called an atmospheric engine, it was actually a pump. The engine consisted of a brass cylinder open to the air.  Steam was fed in under the piston from a separate boiler and was condensed by a jet of cold water which was forced inside the cylinder. A vacuum formed beneath the piston, allowing it to be driven down by the pressure of the atmosphere acting on the top, so producing the power stroke. The piston rod was connected by a chain to one end of awooden beam, pivoted like a see-saw. The other end of the beam operated the piston of the water pump in the mine shaft. The engine was capable of making about eight or ten strokes a minute--that is, controlled automatically by its own valve gear.

Newcomen's engine depended upon the weight of the pump rods to pull the steam piston up the cylinder. He did not make use of the expansion of steam in his engine. Steam was employed merely to create the vacuum in the cylinder, leaving the work to be done by atmospheric pressure. The first recorded Newcomen engine was built in 1712 to drain a colliery (coal mine) at Tipton, England. The engine was exported to North America about 1755.  It remained basically unchanged until James Watt's inventions and improvements in 1769.  By 1790 the Newcomen engine had been almost completely replaced by the Watt engine.

For all his success, Newcomen died in 1729 virtually unknown outside a small circle of engineers. It is a measure of his importance, though, that Britain's leading society for the study of the history of engineering and technology, the Newcomen Society, was named after him when it was founded in 1921.

Dennis Papin's Engine

The first piston engine was developed in 1690 by the French physician and inventor, Dennis Papin (1647-1712?), and was used for pumping water.  The actual work of the machine was done by air rather than steam pressure. It consisted of a single cylinder that also served as a boiler. A small amount of water was placed in the bottom of the cylinder and heated until steam was formed. The pressure of this steam raised a piston fitting in the cylinder, and after it was raised, the source of heat was removed from the bottom of the cylinder. As the cylinder cooled, the steam condensed and air pressure an the upper side of the piston forced the piston down. Papin argued that his invention would have a distinct advantage over water power. However, he found it difficult to raise financial support, and his career ended in poverty and obscurity. Papin did not reach practical success in any of his inveinventionst he paved the way for his more successful followers.

James Watt's Improvements
Scottish-born James Watt  (1736-1819),  although he did not invent the steam engine, is revered as the father of the modem steam engine, since his improved steam engines were powering factories, mills, and pumps both In Europe and America by the end of the eighteenth century.  Watt worked as a mathematical-instrument maker from the age of 19., and soon became interested in improving the steam engine. He made the steam engine a practical machine, obtaining his first patent in 1769. Watt's first progress was in insulating steam carrier pipes against loss of heat. and in protecting boiler shells from rapid heat loss. This economy of heat was the base discovery which did so much to establish Watt's preeminent position as a steam engineer. Watt saw that it was absolutely essential that the cylinder should be kept as hot as possible to prevent the undue loss of steam, and that all condensation must take place in a vessel separate from the cylinder. This lead to his development of a condenser external to the engine, which greatly improved engine economy and efficiency. The separate condenser was the biggest single improvement ever made to the steam engine. Watt determined the properties of steam, especially the relation of its density to its temperature and pressure. His separate condensing chamber prevented enormous losses of steam in the cylinder and enhanced the vacuum conditions. Watt then achieved efficiency simply by covering the top of the cylinder and using low-pressure steam rather than atmospheric pressure to drive the piston down when a vacuum formed beneath it.

By 1781-82, Watt had made his engine double-acting, as he had long wished to do.  By applying steam alternately below and above the piston to produce a power stroke in both directions,  he created an engine more suitable for providing rotating motion. Three years later he patented "parallel motion", the invention of which he was most proud, to keep a rigid piston rod moving vertically while attached to the end of an oscillating beam. The rotative engines were in great demand.

In 1781, Consolidated Mines of Cornwall replaced seven Newcomen engines with five of Watt's. Performing the same work, they consumed only 6,100 tons of coal a year to the Newcomen engines' 19,000 tons.

For inventive range and scientific skill, Watt was unrivaled. Not the least of his innovations was the conception of horsepower.  Comparisons between steam-power and horse-power had been made by earlier engineers, but Watt was one of the first to use a definite number: one horse-power was measured precisely as 33.000 foot-pounds of work per minute. Within a few years, his products were frequently referred to as fourteen-horse engines, twenty-horse engines, and so on. The centrifugal or flyball governor, which he invented in 1788, and  which automatically controlled the speed of an engine,  is of particular interest today.  This device foreshadowed twentieth-century automation.

James Watt was also a renowned civil engineer, making several surveys of canal routes. In 1767, he invented an attachment that adapted telescopes for use in measurement of distances.  Watt died In 1819 in England, where he had done most of his work. An electrical unit, the watt, was named in his honor.


The single factor that made a successful railroad network possible was the development of steam power during the eighteenth century Industrial Revolution. Yet the "railroad concept" was much older than the Industrial Revolution itself.  As early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, for example,  German coal miners had found that it was easier to move heavy loads of coal if the cart wheels ran on smooth tracks. The solution was to lay wooden planks over the rough ground and push the carts along these tracks. It was soon found that rails reduced friction and provided better control of the moving vehicle. From here, it was a simple extension of the concept to use horses or other animals to propel the cars along rails.

Early Railroads in Europe and America

There was immense hostility against the primitive railroad by ironworkers,  who feared the loss of their jobs if horses were replaced by steam locomotives.

The coal industry in northeast England was more perceptive.  In 1812,  the Middleton Colliery Railroad started to use the world's first commercial steam locomotive, designed by Matthew Murray, to move coal at mines.

From the very first, English designers built their locomotives on a smooth cart-like rigid frame that passed outside the wheels and dominated the design.  American designers, with an inventive skill that must have come from frontier training, put the frame inside the wheels, where it was all but invisible.  Eliminating the cart-like frame saved weight and material, yielding a flexible machine that was far better adapted to the uncertainties of early railroad track and to limited repair facilities.

One of the first trips by rail in the United States was an 1831 run between Albany and Schenectady, New York.  Behind its wood-burning locomotive, the DeWitt Clinton, was a flatcar for water and wood: behind that was a stagecoach-like section for passengers. The train's initial starting jerk knocked most riders out of their seats and sparks from the Clinton's smokestack set fire to the umbrellas they had raised as shields. Many mechanical improvements were subsequently made, both in England and in the United States.

One passenger described an 1830 locomotive ride as follows: "Away we fly on the wings of the wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-live miles an hour, scattering sparks and flames on either side,  passed over three saltwater creeks, hop, step and jump and reached the end of the line...before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared."

Until about 1940, steam engines provided the driving power of most locomotives used on U.S. railroads. Subsequently, the steam locomotive largely became obsolete. In the early 1980s, 12 steam Locomotives were operating on U.S. railroads, 10 of them in use on narrow-gauge tourist routes in Colorado.

The Tom Thumb: An Influential Locomotive

Tom Thumb was the most famous steam locomotive in early American railroad history. It was built by Peter Cooper in 1829 to demonstrate to doubting railroad executives that steam power would be more effective than the teams of horses they were using.

Rapid expansion of population had brought tremendous demand for faster ways to transport goods and passengers. Canals were popular, but they took too long to build and were limited to a few geographic areas. Wagons pulled by horses along a system of rails could go wherever needed and seemed like a good solution.

The problem was the limitations of the horses themselves-- it took such large numbers of them, and they could only move so many miles an hour. In England, railroad developers had already solved the problem by inventing a steam-powered locomotive to move the loaded wagons. But the English locomotives, so successful on the flat, straight English runs, were too heavy and rigid for the hills and curves of American tracks.

Into this discouraging situation came a true pioneer of American enterprise, Peter Cooper.  A New York merchant, he gained an understanding of mechanics from his experience as a carriage maker and iron foundry owner. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was organized In 1827. he made large investments in Baltimore land.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first in the country to provide regular service, was launched to connect Baltimore with the Ohio River, 379 miles away.  By 1829 only 13 miles of track were in service, and Cooper was anxious about his investment. Convinced that steam power was the answer to the railroad's problems, he urged the reluctant directors to try it.  When they hesitated, he assured them, "I believe I could knock together a locomotive myself."

Cooper started with a small steam engine he had brought from New York.  The cyllnder was cylinder/4x 14 1/2 inches.  He added an upright boiler 20 inches in diameter and about 5 feet tall, and he used two old musket barrels for pipes. To heat the coal hotter to make enough steam, he rigged a blower to a drum. This was attached by a cord to the wheel of a railway cart.  The finished result  was so tiny Cooper named it Tom Thumb.

It took several months of tinkering to get things working right. On one early trial run the little locomotive raced a horse-car on the adjacent track.  lt was winning the race when the cord to the blower's drum slipped off, and to the jeers of the horse-car's drivers, the engine's steam drained away. Of course the horse won the race.

At last Cooper was ready to demonstrate his invention, and on Saturday, August 28, 1830, a crowd gathered at Pratt Street depot in Baltimore to see them off. Tom Ihumb's open-air carriage held two dozen dignitaries, and Cooper himself manned the engine. Thirteen miles to the end of the line at Ellison's Mills, the little locomotive carried the train up an average grade of 18 feet per mile and around the sharp turns.  It took an hour and 15 minutes. On the return trip, with four more passengers, the train covered the 13 miles in 61 minutes, including a four minute stop at the middle depot to take on water.  The afternoon's demonstration was a triumph. Cooper's experimental model had proved that for railroads, steam power was the way to go. So Little Tom Thumb won the race after all!

Locomotive Competitions

Not until 1829 was a locomotive developed in England for use in a regular commercial railway carrying both passengers and freight. In that year George Stephenson entered his locomotive, the Rocket, in competition with other locomotives for a prize of 500 pounds offered by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.  Stephenson's locomotive best fulfilled all the conditions set by the railroad for practical operation. The Rocket, weighing more than seven tons, pulled a load three times its own weight at the rate of 12.5 mph and hauled a passenger coach filled with passengers at 24 mph. This performance stimulated the building of other locomotives and the extension of the railroad lines. It represented the first breakthrough from a prolonged period of trial and error invention to establish once and for all the potential efficiency of steam locomotion.

Challenged by the vast sweep of continent that beckoned endlessly westward, Americans embraced railroads with a special fervor. As the Rocket was being developed in England, we were brashly beginning to build the Baltimore and Ohio right-of-way that would cover no less than 300 miles, from Baltimore across the Allegheny wilderness to Wheeling, West Virginia.

The first American railroads were powered by horses. The B & O rented its horses from stagecoach companies, and no horse was required to pull cars (named wagons) more than six or seven miles. Work done by horsepower cost the extreme sum of $33 a day, an amount that caused management to envision complete replacement of horses by steam power.

The dream was soon realized. In 1830 the Tom Thumb made Its historical journey to Elliott's Mills outside of Baltimore, averaging five and one-half miles per hour. The following year,  watchmaker Phineas Davis built the York, an engine which was vastly superior to the Tom Thumb, and won the first prize of $4,000 in a B & O contest for the best steam engine. The York negotiated the sharpest curves at the maximum fifteen mph required and obtained speed bursts of thirty-five mph on the straightaways.  Further, the York could be operated on $16 a day, less than half the cost of equivalent horse-based propulsion.

After the successful use of steam by the B & O, rail networks of the industrialized societies rapidly expanded, binding together the industries and communities of the world.  Locomotives expanded, too.  The far descendants of the little Tom Thumb evolved into giant articulated monsters of the rails whose appearance and sounds will never be forgotten by any who experienced them.

The most generally used classification of locomotives is based on the number and arrangement of wheels with which the engine is equipped.  This classification gives the number of driving wheels, and the number of wheels on the trailing truck. Thus, a 2-4-0 locomotive is one with a two-wheel leading truck, four driving wheels, and no trailing truck.  The typical locomotive of the 1800s and 1870s was a 4-4-0 weighing about 30 tons.  Pre WW II locomotives included articulated 2-8-8-4 types capable of hauling 15,000 tons of load on level ground.  After the war, steam was displaced rapidly by Diesel power due to its more economical operating costs.

Steam Automobiles and the Stanley Steamer

The Stanley Steamer, one of the most famous steam-powered automobiles, was built and manufactured by identical twins, Francis Edgar and Freelan Oscar Stanley, born into a large family on a farm in Kingfield, Maine. In the fall of 1896, the Stanley brothers began to make a steam horseless carriage for their own use.  Many people offered to buy it, even before the car was completed. After selling the first model, they proceeded to build two more. These two cars were also sold before completion in the spring of l897. During that year and into 1898, they built and sold approximately 18 horseless carriages. Through July of 1899, 200 cars were actually built and sold, making the Stanley brothers the first men in the world to manufacture automobiles in commercial quantities.

In the spring of 1899, the Stanleys sold the company and their manufacturing rights to Locomotive Company of America, but in the spring of 1901 the Stanleys bought back their manufacturing rights and formed Stanley Motor Carriage Company.

The car was composed of 32 moving parts, including the front and rear wheels and steering gear. Kerosene was the main fuel at first, but gasoline was eventually used in their fire-tube pot boiler. The entire control of the Stanley Steamer was between two fingers of one hand.  It did not have a transmission, but it had a two-cylinder engine located beneath the floor and just one gear engaged the center of its crankshaft, which directly turned the rear wheels.

A distinguishing trademark was the car's rounded hood. It operated smoothly, was almost impossible to stall and was quick to accelerate. It was really a rolling stove--a kind of self-propelled furnace. Its disadvantages included the several minutes it required to get steamed up. the limited number of miles that could be traveled on one boiler full of water, the quick corrosion of the boiler, and difficulties encountered with the burner.

Fred Mariott, who headed the maintenance department of the Stanley factory, made history  in 1906, when he established the world's speed record of 127.66 miles per hour in the Stanley Rocket at Ormond Beach, Florida. The record, which applies to cars having less than 30 horsepower, still stands today. The Stanley Brothers' love for racing ended the following year when a Stanley Steamer, unoficiallunofficiallyt 197 miles an hour, was involved in an accident that demolished the car. In 1907, a Stanley Steamer  became the first automobile to travel faster than a train. This vehicle was clocked at 150 miles per hour.

In 1908, The Stanley brothers produced and sold (for about $2,500) a "Gentleman's 30 Horsepower Speedy Roadster" capable of 60 miles per hour that could run more than 50 miles on a single tank of water. These sporty racing cars were 13 feet long, and most of them were driven into the ground by their enthusiastic operators.

Approximately 4,000 Stanley Steamers were sold in 1908, but sales of steam cars declined as gasoline-powered automobiles became increasingly popular. In 1917, the brothers retired and the company continued under new management until it went bankrupt in 1924. Steam cars, like early electric cars, could not compete with cars powered by the gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engines. People were afraid to drive a vehicle that had an open flame and hot steam. In the winter, huge clouds of white vapor were produced when the car was running, and the water used to make the steam  tended to freeze the car was not in use. In addition, it took about fifteen minutes to get up steam, and frequent stops were necessary to replace the water lost through boiling.

Steam on Water

More than 70 per cent of the earth's surface is water, and this water was often a great barrier to travel. The limitless distances of the seas and oceans were a challenge to land bound civilizations. Early ships made use of muscle, wind and currents for propulsion, eventually achieving very efficient and practical designs. But it was steam power that actually began to make the world smaller.

Pennsylvanian Robert Fulton (1765-1815), artist, gunsmith, and engineer, is most usually associated with the invention of the steamboat. He had begun experimenting with paddle wheel boats as a boy in 1779. He went to Europe to study painting, but soon turned to engineering projects. In 1800, Fulton attempted to sell the French government a submarine to sink British ships. In 1803 he produced a model ofa side-wheel boat and soon afterwards a working vessel, which was first successfully demonstrated on the Seine river in Paris, France.  However, Europe showed no interests in Fulton's inventions at that time and he returned to the United States to continue his experiments.

In 1807 Fulton employed a 20-horsepower James Watt-type engine driving a paddlewheel crankshaft in his now famous steamboat, the Clermont. This boat operated pleasure trips on the Hudson River between New York and Albany. It was a flat-bottomed. 100-ton ship with a hull that could carry both passengers and freight. A contemporary called her "a monster moving on the waters, defying wind and tide,and breathing flames and smoke." Burning pine wood for fuel instead of coal, the ship moved faster than any steamboat before, attaining a speed of five miles an hour. The Clermont traveled 130 miles on its first voyage. Within three months, it had earned $1,000 against the initial cost of  $20,000.

The first steamer to make a sea voyage was Colonel John Stevens's Phoenix, which in 1809 steamed  from Hoboken to Philadelphia, and very soon people on both sides of the Atlantic were dreaming of crossing it by steam. The Americans won the race when in 1819 the steamer Savannah from Georgia traveled to St. Petersburg via Great Britain and the Northern European ports. It was a trying trip: all the coal on board had been consumed before the Savannah reached Ireland, and the return trip to the United States was carried out under sail alone.

A British ship, the Sirius, in 1838 became the first vessel to complete a transatlantic voyage entirely by steam. The Sirius was also one of the first steamships to be fitted with a surface condenser that allowed fresh water to be used and re-used in the boilers in place of saltwater.

As early as 1811, the first steamboat on the Ohio River was launched. The subsequent opening up of the Western frontiers would have been impossible without steamboats, small, light, fast and inexpensive. By 1830, some 230 steamers were churning America's rivers. Prior to steam, 120 days were employed in poling flatboats from New Orleans to St. Louis, a journey of 1,300 miles.  By 1826, steamboats had reduced passage time to nine and a half days. By 1834, the number of steamboat arrivals in New Orleans annually was 2,300, indicative of that port's trade.

The zenith of life on the Mississippi River, 2,350 miles long, came with the steamboat, but rivers farther west were also transformed when the steamboat arrived. Thus, along the distant Colorado River, large numbers of paddle wheel steamboats provided the cheapest and most efficient form of transport in the West for more than fifty years after the California gold rush of 1849.

Women and Steam Locomotives

The outbreak of war In Europe in 1914 set the stage for a new relationship between women and the American railroads. After attacks on American citizens in 1917, the nation declared war against Germany and its allies. The war required the mobilization of millions of American men, creating a major shortage of labor needed to cope with the heavy increase in military traffic. The railroads were forced to recruit employees on a large scale for the first time in their history. The major percentage of jobs for women were clerical and cleaning positions. However, it was not uncommon to see women maintaining huge steam locomotives, doing everything from repairs to refueling. By the end of the war in 1918, railroads employed 101,785 women in 99 different occupations.

When WW II broke out, many of the women still working after the previous war were ready to retire, but stayed on to train the next group of incoming railroad women. By war's end, 200.000 women had answered the call once again.

Most articles or books written about women's work history usually point to the two world wars as the period when railroads employed women for the first time in "men's jobs". However, recent research has uncovered information that steam railroads, as early as 1900, hired women as steam hammer operators, firemen and engineers, baggage men, brakemen, laborers, and conductors, albeit in small numbers.

Exhibit Guide

Steam powered bicycle:

This one-horsepower steam bicycle was available as a kit until the mid-1950s. Properly assembled, it could reach a speed of 25 miles per hour.  A flash boiler, which converts water to steam instantly, provided energy without creating the safety hazard of a large pressurized steam vessel.

The Corliss engine:

Named after its inventor, the Corliss engine was claimed to be so efficient that Corliss allowed his customers to pay him using the fuel savings realized from the use of his design.

Hoist engine

This model hoist engine portrays the type of steam engine frequently used by miners to move men and equipment between the surface and underground levels. Engines of this type might also have been used in industrial settings to operate elevators. The model is 22 inches high, 9 inches wide and 15 inches long.

Large Overtype stationary steam engine
Modelled after a typical single-cylinder steam engine that would have been used to power all of the machinery in a small factory in the early part of the 20th century. A typical application would be in a textile mill for operating large weaving looms and other equipment.

The model is powered by a small electric motor connected to the large fly wheel through a double reduction belt drive.

Showman's steam tractor:
Modelled after a large steam-powered tractor that would have been used at a county fair in the 1920s. This machine would be used to tow wagons to transport the equipment, to power machinery, and to supply electricity to light up the fair and power the rides. Also known as a road locomotive, it would have a differential for operation on paved roads.

The model - at 19" long - is approx. 1/13 full size. The canopy is fully lighted and the model is powered by a small electric motor hidden in the coal bunker. A working differential is installed, as well as a winding drum for use with a crane.

Media: Mostly Meccano construction set parts made in Liverpool, England from WWII through the 1970s. Meccano was the English counterpart to the American Erector Set. These two models were built from a large collection of parts obtained over many years, rather than from a single construction set.

Walking arm pump:

The reciprocating motion of the movable beam used to transfer power from the steam engine to the powered device reminded people of the motion of walking legs, hence the name. Walking beams were in use on the ferries that traveled San Francisco Bay into the 1950s, and can be seen today on the frequently encountered oil pumps scattered across the American landscape -- although these are driven by Diesel engines.

Model steam locomotives:

A variety of models are on exhibit, some large enough to actually ride.  Some of these have been used as props in local theatre productions. The models include:

"Smokey" 4-4-0

The 4-4-0 designation refers to the wheel arrangement: 4 wheels on the leading truck, 4 drivers, and no trailing truck.  The 4-4-0 was in common use throughout the 19th century.  The decoration is typical for the Civil War period. Note the mountain scene painted on the side of the headlight.  Engines of the period were often assigned to a particular engineer, who took great pride in the appearance and maintenance of his mechanical steed and added gold leaf, custom whistles and other decorative items.

Tom Thumb 2-2-0

Tom Thumb was the first American-built locomotive to be used in public commercial service. Designed and constructed by Peter Cooper in 1829, it figured in a famous race against a horse, staged to persuade the new B&O Railroad to purchase the locomotive.  The horse won, although Tom Thumb led until a drive belt began slipping. The locomotive was disassembled and recycled for parts in 1834, but a full sized operating replica is on display in Baltimore.

Consolidation 2-8-0

The Consolidation was one of the most popular types of locomotive in use around the turn of the century. This locomotive is modeled after one in used by the Denver and South Park Railroad in the 1880s. The original was actually a narrow gauge locomotive, operating on rails only 3 feet apart, but this model reflects standard gauge dimensions. It also displays the more modern valve gear in use after 1910. This operating model is 75 inches long, 16 inches high and about 15 inches wide.

Shay locomotive:

The Shay locomotive, designed by logger Epraim Shay in 1880, was frequently used on narrow gauge logging railroads, where its small size, rotating trucks and its high gearing ratio made it ideal for hauling logs over steep grades and around sharp curves from cutting site to saw mill .  Power was delivered through crankshafts to a pair of independently swiveling powered trucks. Over 2700 Shays were built, but fewer than 100 remain. Locomotives of this type are still in use, but now serve to haul tourists, rather than logs. It's distinctive rapid huffing and puffing is often described by railroaders as "Going six and sounding like sixty".

Did you enjoy this exhibit? Your on-line donation will help us maintain this exhibit and create others. Thanks for your support!


Web Sites

California State Railroad Museum (Sacramento) The California State Railroad Museum, part of the California Department of Parks and Recreation, exists to preserve the history and artifacts of the railroad industry. This site serves as an introduction to the Museum and many of its permanent exhibits.

This is a good collection of links about the development of steam power.

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum The B&O Railroad Museum possesses one of the oldest and most comprehensive railroad collections in the world. Its roster of rolling stock, historic buildings, and assortment of small artifacts make it a mecca of railroadiana. From artwork and silver to oil cans and shop tools the collection covers every aspect of an industry interwoven into the folkore and culture of America.

History Of Trains
Totally dedicated to the trains from 1800 to 1950's

History of Steam Power
Features some very cool exhibits -- a collection of beautifully crafted electrically-operated scale models and actual steam engines of all types.


Aboard a Steam Locomotive,  A Sketchbook,  Huch Scarry, Prentice Hall.
New York, 1987

Amazing Boats, Eyewitness Juniors-2l. Alfred Knopf. New York

Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginning of the American Industry,
written and illustrated by Edwin Tunis. The World Publishing Company.
Cleveland and New York, 1965.

Early American Steam Locomotives, First Seven Decades--1830-1900.
Reed Kinert,  Superior Publishing Co., Seattle, 1962.

Eighteenth Cenhuy Inventlons, K.T. Rowland, David and Charles,
Newton Abbot, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1974.

Guide to N.A. Steam Locomotives-History and Development
of Steam Power Since 1900.
George Drury, Kalmbach Books, WI.,1993.

A  History of Technology, the Industrial Revolution ,1750-1850,
Edited by Charles Singer, E.J. Holmyard, K.R. Hall, Trevor I. Williams,
Vol. IV, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, London, 1958.

How Things Work, Steve Parker, Random House, New York, 1991
(for children)

The Industrial Revolution: Ideas That Changed the World
Philip Wilkinson and Michael Pollard. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Chelsea
House Publishers, NewYork and Phlldadephla, 1995.

Life Science Library. Robert O'Brlen, and the editors of Life, Time Incorporated,
New York, 1964.

The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Guide to Steam Locomotives,
Christopher Chant, illustrated by John Batchelor, Marshall Cavendish.
New York. London. Toronto, Sydney. 1989  (for children)

The Power of Steam: An Illustrated History of the World's Steam Age,
Asa  Briggs, The University of Chicago Press, 1982,

Ships of  Steam, Lamont Buchanan, McGraw-Hill, 1956.

The Stationary Steam Engine, George Watkins, David and Charles,
Newton Abbot, W. J. Holman Limited, 1968.

Steamboat Days, Fred Erving Dayton, Illustrated by John Wolcott
Adams, Frederick Stokes Co., New York, 1925.

The Steam Engine, Its Form and Function W. A. Tuplin, Scribner.
New York, 1974.

The Story of the Stanley Steamer,
George Woodbury, Norton and Company, NewYork, 1950.

Technics and Civilization, Louis Mumford, A Harbinger Book,
Harcourt. Brace, and World. Inc., New York and Burlingame, 1934,

The Technolgy of Man. A Visual History, Carlo Cipolla and Derek
Birdsall.,Holt. Rinehart, and Winston, New York, 1980.

This Is the Way it Works-A Collection of Machines, Robert Gardner.
Illustrated by Jeffrey Brown, Doubleday and Company, Garden City.
New York, 1980.

Trains Around the World,  Octopus Books,  London, 1972

Our Special Thanks

The Museum is indebted to many individuals for this exhibit. We commend and thank in particular:

Dick Bartell, Bill Baumbach, Jim Bove, Shirley Burman, Ann Chaimberlain, Glen Cristofferson, John Grant, Don Kepfer, Frank Livermore, Peggy Morris, Andrew Morrison, Paul Nyberg, Dave Peterson, Monroe Postman, and Evelyn White for loaning the artifacts and materials displayed in this exhibit.

Thanks also to Art Adams, Sue Beaver, Roger Broussal, Dick Clark, Ernie Faxon, Charles Gillis, Ralph Igler, Wayland Lee, Gen Leninger, Beverly Nelson, Theodora Nelson, Charlie Pack, Bill Wehrend, Miriam Wehrend, Robert Wersted, Ann Wright and Gordon Wright for planning, installing, and supporting this exhibit.

Photo credits

MOAH Exhibits: Wayland Lee

All trademarks, tradenames and proprietary images are the property of their owners.

Model Credits

Meccano models constructed by Charlie Pack

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This page last updated November 10, 2012

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