The Steam-Powered Automobile

by Andrew Jamison. Indiana University Press, 84.95. Compressing the history of steam-powered road vehicles (the first one was tried in the eighteenth century) and resisting the temptation to enlarge on the splendid oddity of the Stanley twins, Mr. Jamison gets briskly to the question of steam power as a means of reducing air pollution. The discussion necessarily involves mechanical and chemical detail, but even a reader who cannot tell the philosophers’ stone from a left-handed monkey wrench can grasp the author’s chief points, which are: the steam car is not obsolete or extinct— people have been working on it, obscurely, all along; its supposed major deficiencies (slow start, constant thirst, and a tendency to blow up) have long since been corrected if they ever really existed; steam power would indeed reduce air pollution decisively; Detroit would sooner suffocate half the population than spend the money to retool. Or, as Henry Ford II put it in regard to another possible substitute for the internal-combustion engine, “We have tremendous investment in facilities for engines, transmissions, and axles, and I can’t see throwing these away just because the electric car doesn’t emit fumes.”