Simanaitis Says

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THIS ISN’T the first time society gets to decide on personal mobility. Back at the previous turn of the century—the 19th to the 20th—the propulsion fight was among electricity, steam and, the new contender, gasoline.

In 1902, industrialist H. Ward Leonard presented a paper to the Long Island Automobile Club: “What a Light Touring Car Should Be.”

Leonard was an automaker. The Ward Leonard Electric Company, of Bronxville, New York, built the Knickerbocker, a two-cylinder gasoline car, as well as an electric car under its own name from 1901-1903.

Knickerbocker, 1902.

A Knickerbocker light touring car, 1902. Image from Leonard’s paper.

Leonard’s paper was most timely. In 1900, 4192 automobiles were manufactured in the U.S. Of these, 1681 were steam cars, 1575 were electrics and the other 976 were gasoline-powered.

Leonard’s assessments of these available options for personal mobility make excellent reading today. His prioritized metrics are surprisingly modern: safety, reliability, speed, depreciation, economy, hill climbing, appearance, first cost, noise and smell.

Safety. Leonard was ahead of his time in recognizing fail-safe design. There’s irony too: “The gasoline type is safest, then electric and then steam…any derangement [of gasoline propulsion] tends to reduce the power and stop the car, while derangement [of steam or electric] may greatly increase power for a short time, and consequently the danger.”

Reliability. Leonard’s apt definition: “…going from where you start, to where you want to get to, whether it is very cold or very hot or very wet or very dry or very hilly or very sandy.” His ordering: gasoline, steam and electric (“the battery, which is almost unreliability itself when considering long tours…”).

Speed. “There are few persons who want a slow automobile after having ridden in a moderately fast one.” His ordering: gasoline, steam, electric (“battery weight…”).


A summary of H. Ward Leonard’s views on propulsion options, 1902. Image from Road & Track, August 2011.

Depreciation. Leonard gets positively jingoistic on this one: “It is usually out of the question to attempt to cable to the foreign maker, because he would probably not understand what you wanted…” His ordering, again, gasoline, steam and electric (“The storage battery…its chief defect.”).

Economy. Leonard cites “Recent tests in France have shown that a car…was driven on a first-class level road 30 miles with a consumption of 1 gallon of gasoline.” His ordering, with no quantified steam or electric comparison: gasoline, steam, electric.

Hill Climbing. Observes Leonard, “…the steam car has one great advantage. It can stop and get up a high steam pressure and then rush almost any grade.”

Don’t you like that image of “rushing” the grade?


F.O. Stanley and his wife Flora climb Mt. Washington, N.H., in a Stanley steam car, 1899.

Leonard cites a gasoline car’s need for multiple gears; he fails to cite electric’s maximum torque from 0 rpm. His ordering: steam, gasoline, electric (bearing in mind that electrics of his day were sedate city cars).

Appearance. Without much comparative analysis, Leonard rates them electric, gasoline, steam. He offers this odd point, though: “Examine a picture of a locomotive of twenty years ago [i.e., 1882] which at the time was thought very fine and now looks ridiculous to us.”


Upper left, 1882 Manchester locomotive; lower right, 1902 Baldwin locomotive.

First Cost. His ordering: steam, gasoline, electric. In general, he observes, “…first cost seems to steadily go up both abroad and in this country. This is due to the fact that the expensive improvements added each year more than offset the savings due to reductions in cost of manufacture…”

In 1902 Leonard could not have foreseen the Ford Model T coming in six years.


A 1902 Baker electric.

Noise & Smell. “On the question of noise and smell, there is much more talk in this country than abroad.” Leonard elaborates, “This is due to the fact that the steam and electric cars are more common over here and were the first in the field in any considerable numbers.” His ordering: electric, steam and “that bad smell of unburned” gasoline.

But Leonard also notes, “The electric car is free from any objectionable odor except when it is being charged, and the public knows very little about this.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

One comment on “PROPULSION FIGHT

  1. Bill Urban
    July 9, 2013

    Electric didn’t fade quite as fast as Leonard might have predicted. Circa 1910, maps were referenced by “Electric” owners in New York showing shops where discharged batteries could be swapped for fresh . . . including shops along well traveled routes leading out of NY city. And as late as the early 20’s, the Pa. built Autocar truck offered gas and electric . . . electric for all but the heaviest weight rating.

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