Ingenious Steam Machines

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The Winans steam gun.
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Henri Giffard's steam-powered dirigible of 1852 was in fact the first full-size airship.
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A ''David''-style cigar boat photographed in Charleston, S.C., in 1865 and an 1863 drawing showing the inner workings of David C. Ebaugh's original design (inset).
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Clement Ader's ill-fated steam-powered airplane.
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Patent drawing for Villar and Talbot's ''steam land torpedo.''In their patent application of 1915, Villar and Talbot proposed transporting a torpedo (7 in the drawing) across no-man's-land by means of a two-cylinder steam engine (5) and boiler (6). The engine was to be manufactured inexpensively, as it would, in all likelihood, be destroyed by the blast. If one wanted to retrieve the engine, which had no reversing mechanism, the control cable (9) could bring it back.

While manufacturers busied themselves with increasingly successful farm steam engines, inventors were experimenting with a host of steam machines many of them fascinating, some of them zany, and a few of them bizarre. Here is a look at some noteworthy steam devices culled from the pages of history.


On Sept. 24, 1852, French inventor Henri Giffard, using a steam engine for power, designed and flew the first full-size airship. His flight took him from a Paris racecourse to the small town of Trappes some 15 miles west at a speed of roughly 6 mph. Giffard’s airship consisted of a net surrounding a gas-filled, cigar-shaped balloon. A pole hung from the net, horizontally and in line with the balloon, and a gondola was suspended beneath the pole. The ship supported a boiler weighing 100 pounds and an engine weighing 250 pounds; relatively light, but still heavy for an airship. Aware of the potential for fire or explosion, Giffard surrounded the boiler’s stoke hole with wire gauze. He also pointed the boiler’s exhaust down and away from the balloon.

Giffard’s next experimental craft barely escaped disaster. Giffard tried to suspend a boiler and engine beneath what he hoped was an improved bag, but escaping gas caused the balloon to flatten. In turn, the gondola’s nose tilted upward, some lines broke and the balloon slipped from the net and burst. Giffard and a passenger miraculously survived with only minor injuries. Following this, Giffard planned a mammoth, steam-powered airship weighing 30 tons, but prohibitive costs caused him to scrap the project. Giffard is best known in the farm steam engine community as the inventor of the injector.


In 1861, Ross Winans, a locomotive builder in Baltimore, Md., manufactured a steam-powered gun invented by a Charles S. Dickenson. Winans welcomed novelty, a trait he was known for in his locomotive designs, and he applied his enthusiasm for innovation when he produced the steam gun that came to bear his name.

The idea behind the gun was to use steam to hurl a cannonball; his “gun” was supposedly capable of throwing 200 balls a minute (weight unknown) up to 2 miles, of projecting a 100-pound cannon ball and even of firing bullets. The Winans device could be considered an early machine gun, and certain writers have described it by that term. A hopper fed the pivoted gun barrel of the Winans gun, which itself ran on railroad tracks. Winans evidently hoped it might be used to bring the rapidly escalating Civil War to a quick conclusion.

Although born in Vernon, N.J., Winans was a Confederate sympathizer who was actively involved in Confederate politics. In May of 1861 Winans shipped his gun south from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry, Va., but on May 11, 1861, Colonel Edward F. Jones of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Butler intercepted Winans’ gun. Three days later, Butler captured Winans in Baltimore. Had Secretary of State William H. Seward not interceded on behalf of the millionaire prisoner, Winans might have been hanged for treason. Instead, he was released, a fact that angered Butler for the rest of his life. Through the remainder of the war, the gun protected the Baltimore & Ohio Patuxent River Viaduct.


Nicknamed ‘Davids’ (with reference to the story of David and Goliath), these partially submerged Confederate cigar boats carried torpedoes. The moniker “cigar boat” describes the shape of the hull.

In 1863, David C. Ebaugh privately manufactured the first of these crafts at Charleston, S.C. Christened David, it was appropriated by the Confederate States Navy. On Oct. 5, 1863, David, steaming under the cloak of night, attacked the Union ship NewIronsides. Quite unexpectedly, however, David’s exploding torpedo set up a spray that extinguished the cigar boat’s fires, and a piece of shrapnel jammed David’s engine. Through the efforts of the engineer, however, the injured boat escaped. New Ironsides sustained damage but survived.

The following year, David saw additional action against Union vessels, and more ‘Davids’ were built between 1864 and 1865. Some writers refer to the David-type torpedo boats as ‘submarines,’ but there was an obvious limit to the depth that such a steam vessel could submerge.


Several of the first experimental airplanes were powered by steam. These would include Frenchman Felix du Temple’s monoplane of 1874, Russian Aleksandr Mozhaiskii’s monoplane of 1876 and American-born Hiram Maxim’s biplane of 1894. Two 180 HP steam engines powered the Maxim machine, which was tested in Kent, England, but the plane broke its upper rails and was badly damaged.

Arguably the best-known steam aviator is Clement Ader, who built bat-winged aircraft. These included the Eole, which briefly left the ground some writers say that it hopped once on Oct. 9, 1890, and the Avion III, which failed to fly when launches were attempted on Oct. 12 and Oct. 14, 1897. Ader claimed to have flown on four occasions, claims that have prompted considerable controversy in aviation history circles. Like all experimenters in the realm of steam-powered flight, Ader vainly sought powerful yet lightweight engines.


Patented in 1917, the land torpedo was the invention of Victor A. Villar of New York and Stafford C. Talbot of London. The purpose of the land torpedo was to open a channel through obstacles, such as barbed wire, protecting an entrenched enemy force. In World War I, the only ways to attack a defensive position were to wage a manual assault at great loss of life or to bombard entanglements from a distance a slow and costly endeavor, as artillery projectiles tended to pass through barbed wire without exploding. In their patent application of 1915, Villar and Talbot proposed transporting a torpedo (7 in the drawing) across no-man’s-land by means of a two-cylinder steam engine (5) and boiler (6). The engine was to be manufactured inexpensively, as it would, in all likelihood, be destroyed by the blast. If one wanted to retrieve the engine, which had no reversing mechanism, the control cable (9) could bring it back. Villar and Talbot believed that their torpedo could detonate powerfully enough to clear an area for a large attacking force to charge through enemy lines. Does anyone know if the Villar and Talbot land torpedo was ever produced?


I want to thank my colleague Dr. Jonathan Cullick, director of writing programs at Northern Kentucky University, for sharing information on steam-powered airplanes; Scott Lengle, a student in my course entitled “The Machine and the Garden,” for introducing me to the Confederate cigar boats; and Charles C. Rhode for scanning the image of the Winans gun from his 1893 edition of The Soldier in Our Civil War. ST

Steam historian and author Dr. Robert T. Rhode is on the faculty of Northern Kentucky University. Contact him at 990 West Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066, or email:

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