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Why are traditional style cockpits with gauges called 'steam cockpits'? Do the instruments actually run on steam?

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    $\begingroup$ The term is actually "steam gauges" - I've never heard anybody refer to a "steam cockpit". $\endgroup$ – egid Apr 26 '14 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's simply because glass dial gauges resemble steam pressure gauges (e.g. on a steam engine, turbine, whatever). Certainly no aviation instruments have ever run on steam that I'm aware of. $\endgroup$ – TypeIA Apr 26 '14 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ @dvnrrs well, there is steampunk, but they usually prefer airships ;-) $\endgroup$ – yankeekilo Apr 26 '14 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ I was a C130 Navigator and rode on them for about 25 years (the pilots drove me to work) and never really flew with a true glass cockpit, but....I never heard the gauges we used (and they had pointers/calibrated scale/and were round} referred to as "steam gauges" but reading the comments maybe I didn't pay it enough attention? Oh well, we always got to where we where going. $\endgroup$ – user17373 Oct 7 '16 at 0:09
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know about the instruments, but the engine of at least one airplane ran on steam. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 24 '17 at 22:38
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Well, to answer your second question first: no. No aircraft instruments actually run on steam. There are lots of safety issues related to generating and using the steam on board an aircraft that are prohibitive.

As far as why they are called steam gauges, take a look at one and compare it to a traditional flight instrument:

Steam Gauge Airspeed Indicator

They are both round, both have a calibrated scale printed on them, and both have a needle which points at the current value. They actually look pretty similar!

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    $\begingroup$ so is a car speedometer/tachometer also a steam gauge? $\endgroup$ – shortstheory Apr 26 '14 at 7:40
  • $\begingroup$ Heh, I always thought "steam gauges" referred to vacuum gyro-instruments (as they work the same way, only backwards, pulling air out rather than pushing steam in..) $\endgroup$ – falstro Apr 26 '14 at 7:46
  • $\begingroup$ @shortstheory I've never heard them called that, but aviation is a more technical field so maybe it arose from people who worked wih both, back in the early days. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 26 '14 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @falstro Well,the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, and the VSI are not vacuum powered but are called steam gauges! $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 26 '14 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger Oh I'm sure you're right! I just thought it was interesting how much we just assume sometimes :) $\endgroup$ – falstro Apr 26 '14 at 13:14
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I never heard the term "steam gauge" until there were glass cockpits - but maybe that is just me. A "steam gauge airplane" is a mildly derogative term to indicate that the plane has instruments that are old fashioned, borderline obsolete. But they work just fine! I fly a steam gauge airplane.

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    $\begingroup$ Live and learn, I guess. This question was the first time I've ever heard the term "steam cockpit." This is all making me feel really old. $\endgroup$ – Terry Apr 26 '14 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Terry I've never heard the term "steam cockpit" either, but "steam gauges" are a relatively common term now. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Apr 26 '14 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Well, before glass cockpits all instruments were of the "steam gauge" type, so there was no need to have a name for them. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 28 '14 at 6:35
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    $\begingroup$ I just did a google books search on various combinations of "steam gauge" and airplane from 1930-1980 and got no hits, so I too suspect that the term wasn’t coined until the advent of glass cockpits. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Oct 7 '16 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ @KorvinStarmast Probably not the first occurrance but in 1993 the Pilot Vehicle Interface document from the FAA mentions 'Older cockpits contained numerous "steam gauge" style indicators.' bit.ly/2cXIbRq $\endgroup$ – JScarry Oct 7 '16 at 20:59

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