Beijing, 1678

Ferdinand Verbiest’s Steam Cart
Reconstruction: Museo del Sidecar, Cingoli (Macerata)
Materials: light wood, copper and brass sheets, cast bronze, forged iron, boiled linseed oil, pigments for varnish, natural glues, beeswax

Steam as a new form of energy started to spread in the 17th century. The first attempt to propel a vehicle using a steam engine was made by Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) in 1678. Verbiest lived in China as a missionary from 1672 to 1686. Appointed director of the Beijing astronomical observatory and private tutor to Emperor Kangxi, the Jesuit designed a self-propelled cart for the amusement of then 17-year-old sovereign. The steam released from a boiler activated a horizontal wheel, which transmitted motion to gears, which in turn set the wheel of the vehicle in motion.