Cameras And Steam Cars

Published by The Bee News

July 12, 2023

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Did you know that there is a connection between cameras and steam cars? Did you know that one of the most famous American film and camera company’s owes its founding to two brothers who had a passion for steam powered automobiles?

The Stanley brothers were both born June 1, 1849. From an early age they displayed a natural talent for music, and for playing practical jokes that centered on their identical appearance. And while still children they display an eye for business and for mechanical aptitude.

The Brothers Stanley

In 1859, with support from their father, they started a small business refining and selling maple sugar. Their second business endeavor centered on their abilities to play the violin that made them rather famous in the region. Apprenticed to their grandfather, Liberty, the brothers began manufacturing those instruments.Freelan Oscar Stanley (1849-1940) had completed three violins by age sixteen. This was the birth of a lifelong hobby.

At the age of twenty the brothers began attending Western State Normal School with a goal of becoming teachers. Then for a brief time, the brothers parted ways. Freelan continued on course and became an educator. But he was a chronic tinkerer and sonn launched a small business to manufacture the Stanley Practical Drawing Set as a sideline.

Meanwhile Francis Edgar Stanley (1849-1918) chased his dream of becoming a portrait artist, and in 1874 moved to Lewiston, Maine where he opened a photography studio. Two years later he perfected the photographic atomizer, a forerunner of the modern air brush, which he patented in 1876.

Then in 1882 the brothers partnered and began experimenting with various photograph development processes, patented numerous developments, and established the Stanley Dry Plate Company in Boston. As an interesting historic footnote, the brothers would sell their company and patents to a gentleman named George Eastman. He would use these as the foundation for a multifaceted photography company named Kodak.

A Passion For Steam

But what the Stanley brothers are best remembered for are steam powered automobiles. To fund their initial automotive endeavros they sold their photographic company and other assets.

In the late 1890s, the experimentations of men like Ransom E. Olds, and the demonstration of a steam powered carriage in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts captured the attention of Francis Edgar. Soon he and his brother were deeply engaged in experimentation of their own, first with an electric horseless carriage and then with an internal combustion version. By 1896 they had decided that steam was the better option because “it is reliable and easily understood.” Using components from Francis’s wagon and bicycle parts from Sterling Elliott’s bicycle factory they completed their first vehicle the following year.

After extensive testing and refinement, the Stanley Brothers took the vehicle to the 1898 Boston Auto Show. The resultant orders for three vehicles served as incentive for the brothers to launch a new enterprise, the Stanley Steam Company.

Later that fall they entered a race at Boston’s Charles Park, and with speeds nearing 28 miles per hour bested a De Dion tricycle and a Whitney, another steamer. Then they entered the hill climbing competition and their steamer was the only one to reach the summit. It was a day well spent as the publicity from the event garnered 200 orders for the fledgling company.

The success of the company was noted by wealthy publisher John Brisben Walker who was eager to enter the automobile manufacturing business. Then in 1899 he offered to purchase the Stanley’s company and assume all outstanding debts. Reluctant to sell, the brothers countered with an offer they deemed ridiculously excessive – $250,000. Much to their surprise Walker accepted the counter offer. However, Walker and his partner, Amzi Barber, began a feud almost immediately and soon divided the company to create two new manufacturers, Mobile and Locomobile.

Chapter Two Begins

This, however, was not the end of the Stanley brothers’ automotive endeavors. It was merely the first chapter. With the sale of the company the brothers now had capital for experimentation and development, and in 1901, they launched a new company – Stanley Motor Carriage Company.

Production commenced that year from their Newton, Massachusetts factory even though advancements with internal combustion engines was already encroaching on the steam car market. These advancements served to highlight the challenges, and danges, associated with a steam car. Illustrating this was a recent accident in which comedian Jay Leno was severely burned while starting his 1908 White steamer.

This did not deter the Stanley brothers. They steadfastly adhered to perfecting their steam powered vehicles even though sales were constrained. And they continued garnering headlines. In 1906 at Ormond Beach in Florida, now Daytona Beach, Fred Marriott, the company’s repair department manager piloted the streamlined Stanley Woggle Bug racer to a new land speed record – 127.6 miles per hour for the standing mile. The following year, with an improved model, Marriott crashed at a speed near 150 miles per hour.

The company continued promoting its cars through racing and performance events but chose to limit traditional marketing. As a result, sales remained anemic with only 5,200 cars manufactured by 1911. The death knell came in 1912 when Cadillac introduced an electric starter as standard equipment. Surprisingly, unlike many of its competitors, Stanley soldiered on to 1929.

Modernization and changes came slowly for the company. In 1913 electric lights became an option. The commercial line of vehicles, busses, and trucks was discontinued in 1916. Then, reluctantly, in 1917 the brothers agreed to initiate a modest advertising campaign.

The following year Francis Edgar was killed in an automobile accident. By 1923, on the brink of bankrutpcy, Freelan divested himself of the company by selling it to the Steam Vehicle Corporation of America. Even though the new owners attempted to modernize the Stanley with addition of items such as hydraulic brakes, the age of steam had long passed.

With a liquidation sale in 1929, the Stanley steamer story came to an end. Even though dozens of companies had manufactured steam powered automobiles during the infancy of the automobile, the Stanley is the one that became synonymous with vehicles that had once been derisively referred to as teapots with wheels.

If you enjoyed this story of innovation check out the blog page at Jim Hinckley’s America. Sharing America’s story and inspiring road trips by telling people where to go, that is Jim Hinckley’s America.

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