The electric car — from Thomas Edison to Grandma Duck

People tend to think that Teslas and the Nissan Leaf are new developments, but in fact the electric car has a history stretching back to the 19th century.

The first electric car was built in 1884 by Thomas Parker, the man responsible for designing the London Underground, plus various overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham, all running on electricity. Parker powered his independent vehicle with rechargeable batteries of his own design.

Soon variations on the EV began to appear across Europe and America. Gasoline engines were still loud and dirty and required a hand crank to get started. Steam cars were regarded as much cleaner and easier to use. Although they took a little while to get warmed up, they did not require long recharging periods, as did the electrics.

As a result, in the year 1900, 40 percent of American cars on the road were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity and the remaining 22 percent by the infant gasoline engine. Henry Ford, then an employee at Detroit Edison, was as interested in electric cars as the internal combustion engine. In 1896 he was driving an electric “quadricycle” around Detroit. He met Edison, who was his employer, and showed him his plans for an internal combustion engine. Edison encouraged him to go ahead, even though he had his own plans for an electric vehicle.

Ford founded his own company in 1903 and introduced two revolutionary changes: the electric starter motor and the assembly line. Soon the Ford Model T, known as the Tin Lizzy, was going through the production process in 90 minutes. With the arm-twisting crank no longer necessary, the internal combustion engine took off, quickly replacing both the steamer and the electric.

Meanwhile, Edison had not lost interest in the electric car. He replaced the lead-acid battery with a more efficient nickel-iron version and announced the conversion of four touring cars from gasoline to electricity. He also wrote in favor of the technology:

Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water-circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.

To this he could have added “no polluting exhaust and no carbon emissions,” but the advantages he mentions still remain today.

Nevertheless, Americans learned to live with the roar of the ICE and the smell of gasoline. Ford’s interest in electricity did not die, however, and as late as 1914 he and Edison were rumored to be working together on an electric car. It was reported that the car would sell for somewhere between $500 and $750 and have a range of 100 miles. Edison wrote:

Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long.

I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.

Ford even bought interest in a power plant at Niagara Falls to provide some of the electricity. But Edison’s nickel-iron battery proved to have internal resistance and was not powerful enough to propel the vehicle. So the lead-iron battery was re-substituted without Ford’s knowledge. When it proved to be too heavy to be carried by the vehicle, Ford was furious, and the project was abandoned.

So the electric car gradually faded from view. By the 1950s, the only person in America still driving an electric was Walt Disney’s Grandma Duck, who as the grandmother of Donald was a symbol of octogenarian irrelevancy. But the oil crisis of the 1970s changed all that. Once again there was widespread interest in finding a substitute for gasoline and foreign oil.

California got the ball rolling with a mandate that the car companies produce a zero-emissions vehicle or be banned from selling in the state. One result was GM’s EV1, an electric vehicle made in the late 1990s that won praise in the industry but was probably ahead of its time. Vijay Vaitheeswaran, energy writer for The Economist, described his experience when he rented an EV1 during a visit to California:

The vehicle proved to have a much shorter range than I thought it would – closer to 50 miles than a 100. The fact that I sped along at 80 mph in those empty HOV lanes might have drained the battery faster, but only certain highways had that lane; more often, I was crawling along in traffic like everyone else. And most of the time, I was going nowhere at all, since my vehicle kept running out of power. Charging proved the biggest nightmare. There were plenty of chargers around, but some were of the wrong sort; others were locked or nonfunctional. And rather than the “pretty quick” recharge, my useless battery took more than five hours for a full charge. As a result, my entire visit turned into a fiasco of delayed or missed appointments, apologetic cell-phone calls, and panicky exits from the highway to obscure malls and commuter-rail stations in search of a charger.

Most EV1’s ended up in the shredding machines. The story was then told in a bizarre documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which found four people who said they would have liked to buy one and attributed the whole failure to a conspiracy by the oil companies.

But the ice was broken, and in 2006 PayPal founder Elon Musk introduced the Tesla, a high-end vehicle that he said would redefine the automobile industry. The $103,000 Tesla Model S P85D was named the “best car ever” by Consumer Reports last week (“on a scale of zero to 100, a 103”). Musk is currently planning to reach the average car buyer with the Model 3 that will sell for $35,000. Nissan’s Leaf, an urban run-around, has racked up 170,000 in sales worldwide.

The obstacles remain the same as those Thomas Edison and Henry Ford faced: limited driving range, long charging time, the weight of the battery and a scarcity of recharging stations. But Tesla and Nissan are working hard to overcome them.

So will the electric vehicle once again be consigned to the ranks of those novelties that never quite worked out? Or will it fulfill the long-lost dreams of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford as a legitimate alternative to the internal combustion engine? We’ll know in about two years when the Model 3 hits the market.

1 reply
  1. sparklee
    sparklee says:

    The electric car is a practical replacement to the internal combustion vehicle today. I’ve owned an electric with less range than the EV1 and it’s still plenty for a vast majority of my driving. The electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Seattle is adequate to support extended range driving including quick-charges for unplanned errands. This recent trip report gives a flavour of the regional charging infrastructure: https://plus.google.com/108161928669055573248/posts/Kns1cjNNpv4

    I do keep a combustion vehicle for long-range trips, but I primarily rent it out to others through RelayRides as I hardly ever drive it myself.

    Reply

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