From the acclaimed author of Birdmen comes a revelatory new history of the birth of the automobile - an illuminating and entertaining true tale of invention, competition, and the visionaries, hustlers, and swindlers who came together to transform the world. With a narrative as propulsive as its subject, Drive! plunges us headlong into a time unlike any in history, when manic innovation and consumerist zeal coalesced to forever change the way people got from one place to another.
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About the Author
Lawrence Goldstone is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies. One of his novels won a New American Writing Award; another was a New York Times notable mystery. His work has been profiled in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, Salon, and Slate, among others. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Nancy.
Read an Excerpt
Power in a Tube
The latter half of the seventeenth century was a remarkable time, when science was called “natural philosophy” and one so engaged roamed freely over the intellectual landscape. Men such as Newton, Leibniz, Robert Hooke, Descartes, and Robert Boyle were all renowned for discoveries or innovations in a variety of disciplines. Christiaan Huygens was another of that century’s masters. An advisor to France’s Louis XIV for fifteen years, Huygens is best known for his work in astronomy, optics, and timekeeping—he discovered Saturn’s moon Titan, and invented what came to be called the grandfather clock. But like most of his contemporaries, he was drawn to the more conceptual problems of the day, working in the mind as much as in practical spheres, theorizing on such diverse topics as the force of gravity and probability in games of chance.
One possibility that fascinated him was the use of controlled explosions as a power source. Since the only substance available to generate such a reaction was gunpowder, that became his default fuel, and cannons, some of which were huge and could propel a projectile weighing more than a quarter ton, provided the shape of the housing. And, since the objective was to generate energy and not to kill one’s neighbor, the canister would need to be closed at both ends. Finally, for maximum efficiency, whatever was employed inside the canister to be driven by the explosion would need to conform to its shape, a tool we now call a piston.
Huygens built such a device in 1673, but he made an odd discovery. After ignition, rather than being driven outward by the force of the explosion, his primitive piston was drawn back. Oxygen had yet to be identified as an element, so Huygens was unaware that the explosion had burned off the gas, creating a partial vacuum and therefore an atmospheric imbalance that the piston was sucked in to equalize. Motors that ran on this principle would be known as “atmospheric engines.” Only later would experimenters discover that in order to fully harness the force of the explosion, it would be necessary to compress the fuel in the cylinder before ignition.
While Huygens had produced a theoretical prototype, his construction had obvious flaws, the most significant of which was that there was no means to keep the contraption running, since the cylinder had to be reloaded after each discharge. Gunpowder, a solid, was not at all suited to any device that was meant to run continuously. So primitive was Huygens’s apparatus that no one thought to improve in-cylinder explosive devices for almost two centuries. The encased piston, however, was almost immediately utilized to provide power generated from other sources. In 1690, Denis Papin, a French mathematician who had once been Huygens’s assistant, created a partial vacuum in a cylinder by condensing steam, a spur that eventually inspired one of history’s most significant technological advances.
As iron came increasingly to replace wood, the great engineering challenge of the period was the development of an effective means to pump water out of mines and thus allow miners to access ore much deeper underground. In 1712, the year Papin died, Thomas Newcomen, an English iron merchant and lay preacher, built on both Papin’s work and the experiments of another Englishman, Thomas Savery, and fabricated the first practical steam engine. He placed a boiler beneath a cylinder, forcing steam into the chamber, and then used water from a tank above to cool the cylinder and condense the steam. The resulting partial vacuum allowed atmospheric pressure to draw the piston downward. A valve between the boiler and the cylinder would open to allow the steam to enter, and then close when the cylinder was full; another valve from the water tank would open when the cylinder was full, and then close after the piston had been sucked downward. A rocking beam—a sort of seesaw—attached at a pivot point above the cylinder and had a chain fastened on one side that ran a pump, which would suck water from a mine as the piston descended on the opposite side.
Newcomen’s engine could run continuously and reliably and was thus a boon to mine owners. But it was also highly inefficient. The cylinder had to be hot when the steam entered, then cold to create the vacuum, then hot again to continue the cycle. Such rapid and extreme changes of temperature engendered substantial heat energy loss and also put a strain on the iron cylinder wall. For all its shortcomings, however, Newcomen’s engine remained the state of the art for three-quarters of a century, until James Watt developed a vastly improved design, one that has remained more or less unchanged ever since.
Watt’s engine was direct drive, that is, the piston was driven by the steam entering the cylinder and not sucked into a partial vacuum, as with atmospheric engines. He avoided energy loss by allowing his cylinder to remain hot. Waste steam was driven into a separate vessel by the downstroke of the piston, where it was condensed and then returned to the water tank to begin the water-steam-water cycle once more. A far more sophisticated system of valves controlled the movement of water and steam among the various components. Watt’s ingenuity did not end with the engine’s internals; he perfected methods for converting the piston’s reciprocal (up-and-down) motion to rotary motion using gears, and also a linkage system to gain power from piston strokes in both directions, not just one, as with the chain.
Watt’s engine and transfer system were far more powerful and efficient than Newcomen’s, using only half as much coal to produce twice the output. Since no ignition was necessary—steam was created externally in a boiler and then piped into the cylinder—steam engines avoided the problem that had doomed Huygens’s explosive prototype. With the supply of the two fuels for steam engines, water and coal, essentially inexhaustible, there seemed little incentive to experiment with gunpowder or any other combustible alternative.
With his partner and fellow Lunar Society member Matthew Boulton, Watt marketed his device in 1776, thus beginning an industrial revolution on one side of the Atlantic at the dawn of a political revolution on the other. The steam engine was soon employed in virtually every commercial process that demanded a consistent and reliable power source. Perhaps no other mechanical device in history caused such a rapid and profound change in the human experience. In many ways, the modern urban industrialized world could be thought to have sprung from the mind of James Watt.
Although Watt’s engine, like Newcomen’s, had been designed for stationary use, it was inevitable that the notion of applying steam power to locomotion would soon follow. Within decades, both steam locomotives and steamships would transport millions of tons of goods and millions of travelers greater distances and in less time than had previously been thought possible.
Applying steam power to personalized conveyances was another obvious extension of the technology, but it would require any such device to be engineered a good deal smaller and substantially lighter than had by then been achieved. The first man to successfully build a steam-powered carriage was a French engineer, Nicolas Cugnot, who in 1769, predating Watt, fashioned a heavy three-wheeled cart with a large boiler hanging over the front, driving the single front wheel, leaving the entire platform free to haul munitions or artillery. Cugnot’s cart was quite cleverly constructed, with two cylinders operating alternately, utilizing a ratchet that created rotary power and also allowed the vehicle to be driven in reverse. In a demonstration in Paris, Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur ran for fifteen minutes and attained the heady speed of 2 miles per hour.
But in a subsequent demonstration, due to “the violence of its motions,” as Automobile magazine later described it, Cugnot’s machine seemed to have literally “broken down a brick wall which stood in its way.” Soon afterward, his sponsor, French foreign minister Étienne-François Choiseul-Ambroise, fell out of favor at court. With the coming of the revolution, Cugnot’s invention was abandoned entirely. And so the first practical, mechanically driven conveyance ever to grace a public road was cast aside, never to be resurrected, not even when ex-artilleryman Napoléon Bonaparte was hauling cannon across Europe.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, a series of Englishmen, first Richard Trevithick and then Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, built steam carriages that carried passengers. Gurney’s traveled the 9 miles between Gloucester and Cheltenham three times a day at 12 miles per hour. In 1831, Walter Hancock began a shuttle between London and Stratford in an omnibus that could carry fourteen passengers.
Revolutionary though this transport might have been, the British public did not clamor for steam conveyance. The boilers threw off copious amounts of smoke and soot, which was not endearing either to those who had paid premium prices to ride in the thing or to anyone passing nearby. In addition, the boilers often exploded, the crankshafts regularly broke, and the vehicles had a disquieting habit of colliding with pedestrians or livestock, or crashing at what was then considered high speed. It is not difficult, therefore, to see why most of the populace preferred to travel cheaply and reliably in a carriage pulled by the more familiar and always agreeable horse. So irritating were steam tractors that, in 1865, Parliament passed the Red Flag Act, limiting the top speed of steam vehicles to 4 miles per hour and requiring that a man waving a red flag, presumably on foot, precede any such conveyance on a public highway.
Although steam tractors—heavy, bulky, and slow-moving—continued to find application, particularly as farm vehicles, little progress was made in advancing the basic technology. At the close of the eighteenth century, however, coal, which powered the steam engine, yielded a promising alternative fuel source. In 1796, William Murdoch, the same Boulton & Watt engineer who had invented the planetary gear system to convert up-and-down motion to rotary power, lit his house with a new fuel, coal gas, a mixture of hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide obtained by heating coal in the absence of air. The resulting product could then combust if mixed with oxygen. Coal gas, foul-smelling and sooty as it might have been—and explosive if not properly vented—quickly enjoyed widespread use to heat homes and businesses, and for street lighting. By the second half of the nineteenth century, most major cities in Europe and the United States had run gas lines, which were widely accessed by both municipal and commercial customers.
Of course, if coal gas could burn, it might also be used to drive a piston. It took sixty years, but in 1860, a Belgian, Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir, adapted the Newcomen engine to coal gas and created a horizontal, double-acting piston with a shaft attached to a flywheel. To ignite the gas-air mixture, Lenoir employed a constantly burning flame outside the cylinder that was sucked inside by the vacuum created when the piston passed by. Lenoir’s motor could run continuously and produce up to 20 horsepower.
Lenoir patented the design in 1861, and it was soon licensed by a number of French manufacturers. Between three hundred and four hundred were eventually sold for use in light industry. But practical application only emphasized the Lenoir’s flaws. With ignition occurring before the piston reached the end of its stroke, the engine dissipated a good deal of the piston’s potential power. Also, as an atmospheric apparatus with no compression of the fuel in the cylinder, it burned excessive amounts of both gas and the oil that is needed in any engine in which every other piston stroke transmits power. One hundred cubic feet of gas were required to produce a single horsepower. The Lenoir was thus suited only for smaller tasks, where the more complex, economically scaled steam engine was too costly. It would also work only as a stationary device, with gas piped from an outside source. When Lenoir mounted his motor on a three-wheeled carriage-like vehicle, its range was minuscule because the gas in the tank he carried was depleted within moments.
But once the technology had been introduced, major improvements were soon made. The same year Lenoir received his patents, two Germans, Nicolaus Otto and Eugen Langen, theorized that compressing the fuel would add power and efficiency, and that the mixture should be ignited as the piston became tightest against the top of the cylinder, when compression was greatest. In 1864, they founded the Deutz Company to conduct their research. There they would eventually employ two young engineers named Wilhelm Maybach and Gottlieb Daimler.
But Otto did not succeed in building a working compression engine—the explosions in the cylinder were too powerful. Rather than continue to experiment with compression, he and Langen settled for building an improved atmospheric engine. They exhibited their design at the Paris World’s Fair of 1867, the Exposition Universelle d’Art et d’Industrie, and orders came rolling in. Although the Otto, as it came to be called, was almost unbearably loud, described as “clanging like a rapid-fire pile driver,” the market for stationary power plants that could be installed on the factory floor had grown exponentially; Otto and Langen would eventually sell about five thousand of these new machines, the world’s first mass-produced mechanical engine.
The motor utilized a single inverted piston and, like the Lenoir, could run continuously off a city gas line. But Otto’s engine needed only 45 cubic feet of fuel to achieve 1 horsepower, a vast improvement. Otto was also the first to convert the up-and-down reciprocal stroke to rotary motion by using a rack-and-pinion arrangement—a linear gear meshing with a circular one—and a one-way clutch, which disengaged the gears during the piston’s return stroke.
Although the Otto was still technically an atmospheric two-stroke engine, it exhibited some crude characteristics of the more modern compression engine that Otto had first sought to build. Revenues from its sales funded a return to the research that Otto was convinced would yield a greatly improved product.
In 1876, he built one: the first modern internal combustion engine. Both atmospheric power and the two-stroke design were scrapped. Instead, he used four strokes to complete a full cycle. During the first stroke, downward, a mixture of gas and air was sucked into the cylinder; an upstroke, generated by the flywheel, compressed it; a flame was introduced into the cylinder to detonate the fuel, and a downstroke, the power stroke, occurred; the piston was then sent back upward, again by the spinning flywheel, which forced the burnt gases out an exhaust valve. This four-stroke operation, fuel efficient with great endurance, has remained the state of the art ever since. And although Otto’s invention utilized only one cylinder, it would not be long before fabricators built a multiple-cylinder engine, with the timing of the power strokes offset, thereby providing a continuous flow of enormous power while eliminating reliance on the flywheel. As an additional selling point, although it was still sufficiently loud to make conversation difficult in its proximity, the new creation was such an improvement over its predecessor that it was dubbed, without irony, “the silent Otto.”
Table of Contents
Prologue: A Day in Court 3
Chapter 1 Power in a Tube 11
Chapter 2 The Man Who Would be King 22
Chapter 3 Made in Germany… 30
Chapter 4 …Perfected in France 43
Chapter 5 An Uneasy Romance with the Horse 51
Chapter 6 Early Americans 60
Chapter 7 The Self-Created Man 69
Chapter 8 Speed 83
Chapter 9 A Road of One's Own 100
Chapter 10 The Once and Future Car 119
Chapter 11 Selden Redux 138
Chapter 12 Ford Begins his Alphabet 146
Chapter 13 Man and Dog Over the Rockies 169
Chapter 14 Willie K. Comes Home 179
Chapter 15 Colusion 195
Chapter 16 Willie K.'s Road 206
Chapter 17 Palace Coup 219
Chapter 18 The First Shot of the Revolution 230
Chapter 19 Mr. Selden Comes to New York 243
Chapter 20 Ford Motor Comes of Age 258
Chapter 21 Around the World in 169 Days 270
Chapter 22 Ford's Phenomenon 285
Chapter 23 False End of a Long Trail 302
Chapter 24 It's Never Over… 314