Back in 1906, the Brothers Stanley of the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. set a world speed record for steam-powered automobiles. Way back in the dusty dawn of the 20th century, they went 127 mph on 1906 wheels and 1906 tires on a 1906 road.
Now, I doubt that more than a handful of you are aware that that speed record held until just a few weeks ago when a team of British engineering students managed to top the record by just a few miles per hour. They went 140 across a storied dry lake bed out in the California desert.
It was a cool story and gearheads across the world kept tabs on it via the Internet. There’s also a lesson there.
You see, in the ongoing debate over the future of transportation and its role in the myth of manmade global warming, we often hear about transforming the automobile with new, groundbreaking technologies. In fact, we hear that same refrain used almost every time we hear about energy’s role in battling climate change.
Sometimes it just gets silly, such as Michael Ignatieff claiming that his government would re-invent the automobile, much as a midwife might re-invent the aircraft manufacturing industry.
You see, as the gathered observers on the electronic sidelines of Edwards Dry Lake began to realize, a tremendous leap forward in technology might not be a great leap forward in results.
It’s not like a lot of us didn’t have a grasp of the subject at hand, as many of the members of the greasy knuckle web forums I frequent have PhDs in engineering.
Now, the record-breaking car itself is an elegant piece of engineering. Close to $2 million went into the project and it almost qualifies as automotive sculpture.
But it’s when you get into the nuts and bolts of the thing that the story goes sideways.
You see, our British friends spent $2 million and didn’t get two million bucks worth of speed. There are guys who’ve gone 150 at the Bonneville Salt Flats in a Nissan econo-bucket with less than $10,000 spent.
Having designed a masterfully efficient boiler system, which is essential to making big power with steam, they went overboard and pushed all that steam through a turbine to drive the wheels.
In simple terms, turbines are poor powerplants for wheel-driven vehicles.
They spin aircraft and ship propellers, push gas through pipelines, and light our homes, but they fall down in wheel driven applications.
Had the young engineers used their magnificent boiler to drive a modern version of a piston type reciprocating steam engine, just as the Stanley Brothers did 103 years ago, it’s quite likely they would have been knocking on the 200 mph door.
In fact, so effective are piston-powered steam engines, the Union Pacific Railroad’s 1940s vintage locomotive No. 844, one of the largest steam locomotives ever built, has the ability to out-pull multiple modern diesel-electric locomotives.
As I mentioned earlier, every day we hear from the global warmists how we need to rush headlong into uncharted territory for our energy needs, whether it be transportation or energy to light our homes and power our industries.
Routinely, these people know less about sound engineering than I know about quantum physics, and that’s where the trouble rests.
There’s nothing wrong with the march of technology, but we can’t lose sight of the simple Darwinian principle that everything evolves, all the time.
While there can be no doubt that we will take advantage of new technologies as they mature, it’s essential that we don’t do so before they have evolved to a point to where they are a transparent shift from the technology they replace.
If the specific point of the young British engineering students was to break a century-old speed record using a steam turbine, then they should be congratulated.
But, if they were simply looking to build the fastest steam engine on the planet, that’s another story altogether.
Then the story becomes one of being so enamoured with advanced technology that they lost sight of the real goal, and spent a whack of cash just to set the bar only slightly higher.
That’s the real lesson, here.
If we allow activists to insist that car companies and utilities use immature technologies to try and meet the transportation and energy needs of the citizenry, it’s quite likely that we will achieve the same results the Brits did at Edwards Dry Lake — a whole lot of money spent and not much results.
Bill Greenwood is a local freelance columnist.