Power Technologies in Early Cars

When companies began manufacturing cars in the late 1890s, they tried all three forms of propulsion available: electric motors, steam engines, and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. The characteristics of each technology helped to determine its consumer appeal and practicability. So did the lifestyles, locations, and expectations of early car owners.


Columbia Electric Automobile, 1904

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Dr. John Oscar Skinner, superintendent of the Columbia Hospital for Women in Washington, D.C., drove this 1904 Columbia electric runabout from 1906 to 1931.

Electric motor and chain drive in Dr. John Oscar Skinner’s 1904 Columbia runabout

Electricity began to power home appliances, lights, and streetcars in the late 1880s. By the late 1890s, installing electric motors in cars seemed like a promising business venture. Manufactured electric cars ran on city streets by 1897. Electric cars were expensive, and so was electricity; moreover, electric power plants existed only in cities and larger towns. Sales of electric cars were largely limited to affluent urban Americans.

Early battery cars operated smoothly, and they were easy to start and control. But they were also underpowered, heavy, and slow. Electric cars had limited range (distance per charge) and depended on special electrical equipment for recharging, which took hours. Range varied considerably, depending on speed, surface resistance, hills, battery age, and outdoor temperature. A typical electric car could travel about 30 to 50 miles at 15 to 20 miles per hour before requiring an overnight charge.

Electric cars depended on rechargeable batteries mass-produced for the consumer market. Practical batteries for other purposes had existed for almost a century, and rechargeable batteries operated some streetcars and pleasure boats by the 1890s. Problems with electric car batteries included constant maintenance, deterioration, high cost, and relatively short life.


William E. Todd purchased this 1900 Locomobile steam car and kept it at his summer home in Fayetteville, New York. The superintendent of a shipbuilding company in Philadelphia, Todd replaced the boiler himself in 1908.

Steam engine in William E. Todd’s 1900 Locomobile

Steam engines powered locomotives, ships, factories, and machine shops in the nineteenth century. Experimental vehicles with small steam engines successfully ran on roads. Production steam cars of the late 1890s and early 1900s offered several advantages over gasoline cars. They had fewer moving parts and smoother transfer of power to the wheels, and they could not stall. However, steam engines suffered from slow, difficult start-up, a frequent need to fill the boiler with water, and significant loss of energy between the engine and drive wheels. In addition, throttling a steam car demanded precise coordination and timing, and constant attention to gauges and controls. The pilot light had to remain lit continuously, requiring additional attention. Water inside the boiler would freeze if the home garage was unheated. Steam cars did not represent a significant percentage of new car sales after about 1910.

Internal Combustion

Winton Automobile, 1898

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Robert Allison, a retired machinist in Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, purchased the first Winton production gasoline car in 1898.

Gasoline engine in Robert Allison’s 1898 Winton.

Gasoline-powered internal combustion engines ran small pleasure boats by the mid-1890s. The American car manufacturing industry began in 1896 when the Duryea Motor Wagon Company built and sold 13 identical cars with internal combustion engines. By the early 1900s, consumers bought thousands of gasoline cars each year, but many were smoky, noisy, leaky, or prone to breakdowns. Engine refinements made them more reliable by the 1910s and gave the gasoline car the best power-to-weight ratio of any type of car. By then, gasoline cars far outnumbered steam and electric cars.