Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Return Arts and Leisure Communities Immigration and Migration Making the Exhibition Technology Work and Industry Other Topics Guest Curators

Not so Famous Makes
 

The museum's collection also contains a number of experimental cars, a number of cars that were produced in relatively small numbers, and some brands that gained favor for a brief period and then failed. There were hundreds of auto manufacturers in the early twentieth century, and although you might never have heard of Franklin, Kelsey and Tilney, Riker, Balzer, or Winton, these “unsuccessful” automobiles can help us understand American history in all its richness and complexity.

The first car the Smithsonian Institution collected was an experimental gasoline-powered automobile. Designed and produced by Stephen M. Balzer, this 1894 Balzer automobile was technologically interesting—it had a rotary engine—but Balzer never mass produced motor cars, and the Balzer Motor Company was not a commercial success.

1894 Balzer Automobile
1894 Balzer Automobile
Portrait of Stephen M. Balzer
Portrait of Stephen M. Balzer
Balzer's patent, numbered 573,174, December 15, 1896
Balzer's patent, numbered 573,174, December 15, 1896
Balzer-Manly Aeroplane Engine
Balzer-Manly Aeroplane Engine
Elwood Haynes in the Haynes Automobile
Elwood Haynes in the Haynes Automobile

In 1910, Elwood Haynes donated a car to the Smithsonian. The Haynes “Pioneer” was test driven on July 4, 1894. This car, although not the first American-made automobile, is one of the earliest made cars in the museum's collection, and is also gasoline powered.

In contrast to Stephen Balzer, who got out of the car business in 1902, Elwood Haynes stayed active in the business until his death in the 1920s. The Haynes Company did relatively well in the early twentieth century, but like many auto companies of the time, it failed during the 1920s.

Different Fuels, Different Futures

Building a gasoline car didn't guarentee sales and a future in the automaking business, some of the car companies that failed in the early twentieth century backed the wrong horse when it came to fuel type. Inventors and manufacturers built steam, gasoline, and electric cars. Gasoline has its problems as a fuel—it is inflammable and emits pollutants, to name but two of them—but gasoline-powered vehicles became the norm within a generation.

1904 Columbia Electric
1904 Columbia Electric
Columbia Motor Car Ad, from Town and Country, 1911
Columbia Motor Car Ad, from Town and Country, 1911

Electricity was a new technology in the late nineteenth century, and its modernity may have made it appeal to urbane city residents. City dwellers were the largest market for electrically powered vehicles, since such cars operated best on smooth roads and over short distances. Electric cars were quiet and easy to drive, and they were often seen as a replacement for a carriage for the wealthy: many early electric vehicles look like carriages. But electric cars had disadvantages: they couldn’t go very far between charges, batteries needed maintenance and wore out, and you couldn't carry a spare can of electricity in your car. Bad roads also limited electrics' usefulness.

Riker Electric Automobile, built about 1900
Riker Electric Automobile, built about 1900
1914 Rauch and Lang Automobile
1914 Rauch and Lang Automobile
Steam-powered Locomobile in about 1906, outside the home of Mrs. H. H. Smith. Smith's twins are seated in the car.
Steam-powered Locomobile in about 1906, outside the home of Mrs. H. H. Smith. Smith's twins are seated in the car.
W. E. Todd's receipt for purchase of the Locomobile, dated July 4, 1901.
W. E. Todd's receipt for purchase of the Locomobile, dated July 4, 1901.

Steam power had been harnessed for factories and for railroads in the nineteenth century. Of the three main fuels for automobiles, it was the most tried and true. But steam didn't work as well for small personal transportation as it did to fuel large locomotives. Steam cars took time to warm up and be ready to drive, and the boiler that made the steam could explode. Steam cars were initially popular but they faded from the market.

White Steam Automobile
White Steam Automobile
White Steam Engine
White Steam Engine
Previous Page
Next Page
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits