Cugnotís Automatic Steam Dray

Back to Contents

    In 1770 people living near the Arsenal in Paris, France, were treated to a bizarre vision. Had that genre of literature existed at that time, people would have said that what they saw looked like it came straight out of science fiction. It looked like something that might have come from the future as conceived by an Eighteenth Century writer. It astounded people, even though to modern eyes it would have looked just silly.

    It was a three-wheeled dray that pondered 2.5 tonnes. What looked like a large kettle hung from a beam that jutted forward over the front wheel. Copper tubes connected the kettle to a pair of cylinders rising above the wheel. It hissed and it clanked as it rolled along the street at 2.25 miles (3.6 kilometers) per hour, about the pace of a walking man. Able to carry a payload of 4 tonnes and meant to achieve an ultimate speed of 4.8 miles (7.7 kilometers) per hour, it flabbergasted people by moving without the use of horses: it moved by itself; that is, it was automatic.

    Called a fardier ŗ vapeur (steam dray), it had been conceived and designed in 1769 by Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot (KU-nyo; 1725 Feb 26 - 1804 Oct 02) for the French army. Two simple steam engines pushed ratchets on either side of the front wheel to make it move. It was meant to carry cannons and, at 2.25 miles per hour, it could have kept up with a marching army. Cugnot intended the steam dray to replace horses and thereby eliminate the armyís need to haul or acquire feed for them: the steam dray will operate on anything thatís flammable; in particular, it will burn wood, which was plentiful in Europe.

    But, though it worked well enough to do the job for which Cugnot designed it, the steam dray had a fatal flaw. The driver had to stop the vehicle every fifteen minutes or so to rebuild the fire in the kettle and to put more water into the boiler if necessary. That necessity slowed the steam dray down too much and, as a consequence, it was never used or developed further.

    Cugnot could have fixed the flaw easily. Suppose that he had done so and that the French army had begun using steam drays in the 1770's. How might our world look different today?

    Fixing the flaw in a way that might have been clear to Cugnot would have involved redesigning the steam dray to have two kettles and suspending them over the body of the vehicle so that a fireman sitting in front of the driver could refire one while the other propelled the vehicle. It might make an interesting psychological study to ask why Cugnot didnít devise that solution to his problem, but for now we assume that he did actually devise it on some alternate historical timeline.

    Although the French army initially wanted the steam dray to carry cannons and, presumably, their ammunition, the leaders quickly found other uses for the machines. Given that a soldier carries a 10-kilogram pack (weighing 98 newtons or 22 pounds), someone calculated that a steam dray could carry the packs of four hundred soldiers. One or two steam drays could carry the packs of a battalion, thereby relieving the soldiers of a major source of fatigue. That makes the army more robust, better able to "steal a march" on the enemy.

    Steam drays also carried tents and other camping equipment that an army needs in the field. Mobile hospitals and field kitchens were also built onto steam drays. Hundreds, even thousands, of steam drays accompanied the army, making that organization more efficient and, thus, more effective.

    Hundreds, even thousands, of drivers and firemen quickly devised major improvements in the steam dray. Some fireman certainly noticed, on this alternate timeline, that he could do his job more efficiently if the steam generator had a single firebox with an open door so that he could stoke the fire continuously. Another suggested building the fire on a grate inside the firebox, thereby enabling him to remove accumulating ash and discard it while the fire was still burning. And someone else requested that a force pump be added to the machine to enable him to draw water from a barrel and push it into the boiler while the boiler was still under pressure. In that way the steam generator evolved into a system like the one used in steamboats and railroad locomotives in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries on our timeline.

    In 1769 James Watt (1736 Jan 30 - 1819 Aug 25) obtained a British patent on his improvement to the steam engine that Thomas Newcomen (1664 Feb ? - 1729 Aug 05) had invented in 1712. In Newcomenís engine steam from a boiler was admitted into a cylinder fitted with a sliding piston, then cold water was sprayed into the cylinder to condense the steam, thereby creating a partial vacuum that drew the piston back down to the head of the cylinder. The condensate was drained from the cylinder and the process was repeated. A system of valves operated by the motion of the piston rod enabled the machine to run itself. Because the cylinder cooled down during the condensation phase, it had to be reheated by the incoming steam of the next cycle, so the machine was inefficient. Watt fixed that problem by building a machine that condensed the steam outside the cylinder, in a separate condenser. Later builders used pressurized steam to drive the piston, eliminated the condenser, and simply let the spent steam exhaust directly to the atmosphere. Cugnotís steam engine used that latter system, so the French could have "stolen a march" on the British in the use of steam engines and did so on our alternate timeline.

    The ratchet system of driving the steam dray is complicated and expensive. It didnít take long for someone to conceive the idea of putting a joint in the piston rod, so that the lower part of the rod could move laterally as the piston moved up and down, and replacing the ratchets on the front wheel with cranks. The flexible piston rods then turned the cranks, providing motive power in the manner that we see in a childís tricycle.

    With three wheels, the steam dray was not properly stable. On a road that tilted to one side, the vehicle could easily tip over sideways. The fix was easy: the single front wheel was replaced with a pair of wheels on an axle that also served as a crankshaft. With a longer crankshaft available, the builders could put extra cylinders on their improved steamwagon, making it more powerful. A four- or six-cylinder steamwagon could move faster or tow heavier loads than the two-cylinder Cugnot steam dray could.

    Steam became an obsession in the 1770's in that alternate France. Wagonwrights and blacksmiths combined their efforts to build steamwagons for civilian use. Soon steamboats came into existence on the rivers and canals of France. As a consequence, the people became more productive and more inventive.

    Of course, the aristocratic twits who ran France were every bit as greedy and as stupid as their counterparts on our timeline. They vied with each other to see who could arrive at Versailles in the most opulent steam carriage. To support their steamy extravagances, the aristocrats bled the economic lifeblood out of the people who did the actual work of producing the goods and services that made France a reasonably civilized society. Therefore, the French Revolution happened as it did on our timeline.

    Next came the Napoleonic Age. By that time France had the first crude railroads running across her landscape. They were one of the few good things that the aristocrats had done. While soldiers and workers would endure the rough ride of steamwagons on rutted roads, the aristocrats wouldnít. It was inevitable that someone would invent a way to smooth the ride. Paving the roads wasnít feasible at the time, so when someone suggested putting steam carriages onto iron rails, it became a fad.

    The simplest and most easily implemented system uses rails that have an L-shaped cross section. The broad horizontal part of the rail supports the wheels of the carriages and wagons and the shorter vertical part prevents the wheels from slipping off the rails. Iron tongues, with holes, jutting from the rails enable gandy dancers to spike the rails to wooden sleepers. Tongues at the ends of the rails enable the crews to bolt the rails end to end through splice bars to turn the rails into a continuous track.

    Several advantages came from using that system. With the flanges on the rails instead of on the wheels (as on our railroads) the system allows any carriage or wagon with the appropriate wheelbase to ride the rails. Thus, steamwagons could run on ordinary dirt roads where necessary and ride the rails where possible, giving France a flexible transportation system that enabled unprecedented efficiency in transport. People quickly discovered that steamwagons and steam carriages running on the railroads used less fuel to go a given distance than they would use on the other roads and that they would travel faster.

    Railroads, double tracked to allow traffic to move freely in both directions, spread over France and the country prospered in consequence. Of course, due to the moral imbecility of the aristocracy, none of that prosperity "trickled down" to the people whose labor actually created it. Thus, the Revolution. Once the French people had eliminated the thieving parasites from their country, the working people began to benefit from the prosperity that their labor created and the country grew even more prosperous and powerful.

    Another advantage grew from the fact that the railroads did not need specialized rolling stock (such as the wagons with flanged wheels that our railroads use). Steamwagons could roll on the railroad track and get off anywhere to roll on ordinary roads or no roads at all. That fact meant that a railroad did not have to be built all at once. A railroad company could lay down a short stretch of track, building until construction funds ran out. Then when they had saved enough from the fees that they charged, they could extend their track farther. The rail network thus got built gradually.

    Steam power produced one of the greatest differences between their world and ours in North America. On this alternate timeline the United States of America ends at the Mississippi River. There was no Louisiana Purchase.

    In 1762 France ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain, as it did on our timeline. In 1800 Spain ceded the territory back to France in the Third Treaty of Ildefonso. Soon thereafter the first steamboats began running up and down the Mississippi River, almost ten years before they did on our timeline. Using Saint Louis as a base, some went further up the Mississippi and others went up the Missouri River. With relatively easy transportation available, people who could not hope to own land in France migrated to Louisiana and established farming communities. Steamwagons began chuffing and rumbling over the landscape.

    By 1803 it was becoming clear that Louisiana was quickly growing into a major asset for the French Empire. The French decided not to sell it and Thomas Jefferson had nothing to buy. Later discoveries by French explorers, especially the iron ore deposits of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, validated that decision.

    Eventually the growth of Louisiana led the French to take all of Canada west of and including Quebec. The British were confined to the Maritime Provinces, which later joined the United States (as they almost did in the late 1980's on our timeline when Canada almost fell apart). The French Empire sprawled across North America to the Pacific Ocean, the more so when Russia sold Alaska to France. The Pacific Coast, from the Aleutians to a point somewhere north of San Francisco, was and still is French.

    The Napoleonic Wars didnít play out quite as they did on our timeline. With so many people emigrating to Lousiana, Napoleon couldnít raise a Grand Armeť large enough to invade Russia. Consequently the French army was not exhausted, physically and morally, and was able to fend off the British. There was no Battle of Waterloo. The French Union, spread across Western Europe, and its overseas empire persist to this day.

    As another consequence of the rage for steam, the Industrial Revolution came half a century early and so did La Belle …poque. The Franco-Prussian War, which happened in 1870 when Bismarck unified the German states into a single nation under a Kaiser, didnít happen on this alternate timeline. Life simply kept getting better for people in the French reconstruction of the Roman Empire. Even in the overseas parts of the empire life was better: In French Africa the atrocities caused by King Leopold of Belgium at the beginning of the Twentieth Century did not occur. With Europe unified, World War I and its sequel twenty-five years later did not occur. The suffering and destruction of those wars did not deform Humanity and the world became a more peaceful and prosperous place than ours is.

    If only Cugnot had made one minor change to the design of his steam dray. If only....

efefef

Back to Contents