Engine or Motor: The Age-Old Question

By Scott Hamilton

Senior Expert Emerging Technologies

There is a very interesting historical question that has come back into the spotlight in recent years. The invention of the electric car, or rather the re-invention of the electric car since they were actually invented before the gasoline cars, has brought up the question, “Is it a car engine, or motor?”  I read an interesting article this week that tried to answer the question in modern times, but then found it had a much deeper history.

The argument was first covered in a news article in the December 1896 issue of Horseless Age magazine, where the editor states in a short article titled “Engine Versus Motor” the following paragraph:

“Patent reports and other current literature show that some inventors are yet wedded to the term “engine” as applied to a source of power for road vehicles. This is a mistake. The term, with all its reminiscences of licensed engineers, boilers and ponderosity, should be rigidly excluded from the literature of road locomotion. Let the true word motor come in, as the old year gives place to the new and fully occupy the field which is its right. It represents a new idea, in which the licensed engineer, the boiler and ponderosity have no place.  It represents the light, the economical, the safe and simple power soon to be in common use upon the common roads. From this time forth let the engine be relegated to the factory and the railroad.”

I would argue that in 1896, engines were the primary means of powering factories, railroads and large equipment, whereas the motor was a new idea, driving smaller equipment like motor cars, bikes and farm equipment. The term engine primarily referred to the large steam engines, and as such were seen as not applicable to road vehicles. 

In more recent times, the steam engines have fallen away as a relic of history. The term engine has become the primary means of talking about a device that provides mechanical power from combustion of fuel, and motor has come to describe a device that provides mechanical power from electricity. For example our gasoline cars have engines, airplanes have engines, even trains have engines, and your electric drill, electric lawn mower and electric razor have motors. This is an interesting shift that once again the newer technology took the term motor and the older technology is using the term engine.

I believe this observation makes the author of the quoted article quite observant and maybe ahead of his time. The term engine in 1896 referred to the existing and older steam technology and motor was used to refer to both gasoline and electric motors. Just ask any Tesla owner to have a look at his “engine” and you would likely get the same reaction a car owner in 1896 would have given you. They would have considered it crazy that you called their motor an engine. The truth of the matter is that there is no real difference between the two terms other than a “feeling” that one or the other is correct.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a motor as any of various power units that develop energy or impart motion. It defines engine as a machine for converting any of various forms of energy into mechanical force and motion, also a mechanism or object that serves as an energy source. As you can see, they both define essentially the same thing, a device that creates energy or motion. So the next time the mechanic tells you there is a problem with your engine, you can say, “Are you sure it’s not my motor?”  

Until next week stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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