This 1905 engine can rival a modern-day EV for torque—just add steam
Electric-vehicle makers love to flash torque output in big, bold numbers. Look at the goliath GMC Hummer pickup, for example. When it was announced, GM touted the truck’s five-figure torque output. Among econoboxes and light-duty pickups, that was mind-blowing, but to a different subset of mechanical enthusiasts, 11,500 lb-ft did little more than raise eyebrows. There was a vehicle churning out comparable numbers over a century ago. After all, what good is hauling capacity without adequate traction?
The 150 Case steam traction engine was designed for the purpose of moving large loads over unpaved land between rail connections. Essentially, it’s a locomotive that operates without a rail system. Case built nine of these monsters and sold them into various logging and mining operations. Those industries are tough on equipment, hence why none of the original Case 150 engines survived. The one you see in the video below is a complete reconstruction built using the original plans. Fret not: It still can be put to work to demonstrate just what steam power can do.
This steampunk contraption can move some serious weight. The boiler is coal-fired and nearly six foot deep. The heat from the fire produces steam that moves a 14-inch diameter piston through a 14-inch stroke. Get everything dialed in properly and there isn’t much that can stop this 75,000-pound monster. The only thing it can’t do is outrun anything: Top speed in high gear is just about 6 mph.
The engine can’t move quickly, but this video shows the 150 Case pulling a bottoming plow through the earth. Not just any bottoming plow, either—this one is assembled from multiple plows and measures nearly 50 feet edge to edge. The weight of the plow and operators alone roughly matches that of a 2000-pound competition tractor pull-sled; add in the (literal) drag produced by the resisting dirt and this object would stop just about anything in its tracks. The Case gets stoked up and pulls through without issue. Seeing the governor chatter and click means that steam piston is doing all it can, though.
This highlights the intersection of torque and horsepower. In our modern world we are spoiled by multi-speed transmissions that multiply the relatively meager torque of internal-combustion engines. Electric motors have a virtually flat torque “curve” and thus only require a transmission in specific applications. Add even a small gear ratio and suddenly a 9000-pound SUV can zip from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds with almost no drama. What that the modern, rubber-tired EV can’t do is work like this steam-powered behemoth.
Two different tools for two different tasks, though. What modern EVs and this 1905 traction engine share, strangely enough, are rather rudimentary transmissions, highlighting the technology has finally caught up to the task. Love it or hate it, EVs can haul—even if we won’t be substituting them for locomotives any time soon.