August 26, 2009: Steam Engine Record on the Lakebed

  • Published
  • Air Force Flight Test Center

A British steam car operated on Rodger’s Dry Lakebed set the official world record for the fastest speed ever travelled by a steam car, attaining a speed of 148.786 miles per hour. The record was the culmination of the British team’s effort over the past decade to beat the record of 127.659, set by Fred Marriott more than a century ago in 1906 in Daytona Beach, Florida. According to Air Force Flight Test Center Commander, Maj Gen David Eichhorn:  “The steam car tests are exactly complementary to what we do here every day. That’s why we have these natural resources. So that just like they are pushing this car to its limits to see what it can do, we too push our aircraft to their limits to see what they can do and so we can keep a technological edge.”

A steam car was an automobile propelled by a steam engine.  A steam engine was an external combustion engine in which the fuel is combusted outside of the engine, unlike an internal combustion engine in which fuel is combusted inside the engine. External combustion engines had a lower thermal efficiency, but carbon monoxide production is more readily regulated.  The first experimental steam-powered cars were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was not until after Richard Trevithick had developed the use of high-pressure steam around 1800 that mobile steam engines became a practical proposition. By the 1850s it was viable to produce them commercially: steam road vehicles were used for many applications.  Development was hampered by adverse legislation from the 1830s and then the rapid development of internal combustion engine technology in the 1900s, leading to their commercial demise. Relatively few steam-powered vehicles remained in use after the Second World War. Many of these vehicles were acquired by enthusiasts for preservation.  The search for renewable energy sources has led to an occasional resurgence of interest in using steam technology to power road vehicles.

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