- Historic Sites
The Stanleys and their Steamer
Teetotaling twin brothers built the most wonderful car of their era, and its day of glory may not be over yet
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
From violins the twins moved on to photography. They pioneered the dry photographic plate and perfected early X-ray equipment. The sale of these inventions set them up financially for the next stage of their career—the production of the Stanley Steamer. This important stage opened almost casually. In 1896 the Stanley twins went to a fair to see a widely advertised “horseless carriage” powered by steam. The car, imported from France, was billed as “The Marvel of the Age.” Actually it was not very impressive, continually snorting, jerking, and stalling.
The Stanley twins decided they could do better. Within a year, without any previous knowledge of steam engineering, they turned out the first Stanley Steamer. This was simply a small engine and boiler slung beneath a carriage, but it was an immediate success. Spectators were particularly impressed by the vehicle’s brisk pace and strange silence. “It was like watching a pair of pants run down the street with nobody in them,” one old-timer graphically recalls.
The Stanley twins had the New England characteristics of taciturnity and dry humor. They enjoyed a practical joke and were not above taking advantage of their car’s silence. Noiselessly pulling up to a toll bridge one time, they found the keeper sound asleep. When awakened, the keeper stared at the two men in the carriage and demanded, “How did you get up here without me hearing you? Where’s your horse?”
“He got away from us,” said F. E. “Have you seen him?”
The keeper shook his head. “No—but you’re blocking the bridge. You’ll have to get that carriage out of the way.”
“Of course,” said F. E., and covertly touched the throttle. The carriage silently glided across the bridge, leaving the keeper staring after it with open mouth.
Horses also suffered from the silent Steamer. They apparently couldn’t figure out what kind of invisible beast was drawing the carriage, and some horses wouldn’t even go near a trough that had been used by a Steamer taking on water. Dogs were another story. As soon as a Stanley Steamer appeared, the entire canine population would come running, barking, and howling. It used to be a mystery how a dog, sometimes more than a mile away, would know an unobtrusive Stanley was in the neighborhood. With today’s scientific knowledge, it is not hard to guess that the sharpeared dogs were attracted by the supersonic pitch of the Steamer’s burner.
To discourage dogs, the Stanley twins installed steamboat whistles on some of their early models. One blast and the dogs would scamper for home. More than a few humans were sent scampering, too—astonished by the sudden sound of a steamboat in the heart of, say, Syracuse, New York.
Train whistles were used on Stanleys, too. These were fine for “whistling down” the barriers at a train crossing— after the Stanley was safely across the tracks and on its way. The crossing keeper would then come out and stand scratching his head, wondering what had happened to the train he had heard.
On one occasion, however, the Stanleys’ train whistle backfired on them. Driving through downtown Boston, the twins noticed a woman coming out of a side street on a bicycle. To alert her, F. O. blew the train whistle. The woman, surprised at hearing a train in such an unlikely spot, stopped pedaling but forgot to put on the brakes. She ran into the side of the Steamer, left the bicycle, and literally flew into F. E.’s lap. F. E., with the aplomb lor which Stanley Steamer men were later to become noted, tipped his hat and said, “Madam, this seat is reserved. I am married.”
Despite such wry humor, the Stanleys were austere in their private lives. Neither of the twins drank or smoked, and both were shrewd, hardheaded businessmen. They took pleasure, however, in mystifying people with their similarity in appearance. They dressed alike and wore the same full-blown type of beard. For such a conservative pair, they also developed a strange passion for speed. This led to confusion among police all over New England.
For instance, in taking trips, the Stanleys would start out in two Steamers, F. O. a few minutes in advance of F. E. Sooner or later, F. O. would be stopped by a constable. While the lawman was lecturing F. O. on the evils of speeding, his twin would solemnly whiz past, identical in all respects. This numbed more than one rural arm of the law.
In 1899, after several years of making and selling individual Steamers, the twins bought a factory at Newton, Massachusetts, and formally launched what soon became known as the Stanley Motor Carriage Company. Two hundred cars were made that year, and the firm went down in history as the first American company to produce steam automobiles on a commercial scale.