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Ford & Edison’s Role in the History of the Electric Car in America 1890-1914

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At the turn of the 20th century, though often looked at through a teleological view, ¬¬¬¬¬¬the future of the automobile industry was yet to be decided. About a decade prior, the electric automobile had its first development in America by William Morrison and was successfully commercialized in 1895 by the Riker Electric Vehicle Company. While steam and gasoline-powered cars were also being engineered, the electric car was ahead in public consumption by the 1900s. This paper will look at the history of the electric car in America and Ford & Edison’s role in it up till 1914. Even until 1914, the choice between electric and gasoline cars was under debate.

The history of electric cars in America starts with Thomas Davenport who invented the first American electric motor in 1834. However, it was not until 1891 that William Morrison built the first working electric car (Figure 1). The Pope Manufacturing Company in Connecticut 1897 became the first American electric car manufacturer and seller. However, electricity was not the only power to replace horse-driven vehicles.

The three types of engine power for road vehicles had distinct advantages and disadvantages. The steam engine was powerful, and efficient, and could burn a variety of fuel. It was a well-established and relatively mature technology. The steamers could operate smoothly and silently. However, the steam engines needed some time to get steam up and involved a complex array of valve gauges to make sure the water and fuel levels were proper. Another issue with the steam engine was the need for weekly cleaning of the boiler, burners, and other operating parts. The boiler water also had to be replenished with water every 25-30 miles and this was another inconvenience. A persistent rumor that the steam boilers could explode without warning prevented many potential buyers of steam cars.

In those early days, internal combustion engines (ICEs) were very noisy, smelly, and polluting. They had many mechanical problems and above all, had to be cranked by hand to start. This was an inconvenient and physically intense process, and if the crank kicked back, it could result in a sprained or broken wrist. Despite these disadvantages, gasoline cars could travel fast, and gasoline was available at many locations. Car buyers were attracted to the noise and considered it the glamour of a gasoline automobile.

Electric cars were silent, clean, and easy to operate. Electric cars did not require manual efforts to start driving and it was a major advantage. The range of electric cars was, however, limited by the charge of their batteries. As a result, electric cars were restricted to areas where they could conveniently return home to recharge or where recharging was available. Another disadvantage of early electric cars was their relatively slow speeds compared to steam and gasoline cars. The normal speed of electric cars was less than 20 miles per hour. Above all, the batteries required careful and frequent maintenance, and they were very heavy and expensive.

During the late 19th century some inventors worked diligently to develop user-friendly and affordable cars, and the two most notable among them were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Both Edison and Ford worked on several automobile designs and contributed immensely to the industrial and social transformation of society and the creation of the modern world. Edison and Ford eventually even teamed up to build low-priced electric cars.

Thomas Edison established The Edison Illuminating Company and opened the first commercial power plant in America in 1882. He developed the practical incandescent light bulb and the first direct current electric power generating and distribution system. He also contributed to sustainable technology and experimented with home-based wind turbines to generate electricity that would replenish batteries to provide households with an independent source of energy. He made efforts to develop methods to convert coal directly into electricity and to develop electric cars.

Edison viewed electric cars as a cleaner alternative for moving people in cities polluted with smoke. Edison had a deep respect for nature and was hesitant to damage it. He knew that fossil fuels such as coal and oil were not the best sources of power. He was concerned about the air pollution issues created by fossil fuels and recognized that those resources were limited and would become a problem in the future. Edison recognized the potential of wind power and solar power as renewable sources of energy.

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Edison entered the development of electric cars in 1895 by building the first battery-powered electric car. He was self-taught as an electrochemist and in 1899, Edison made efforts to develop a storage battery suitable for vehicles. It was about four years after the introduction of the first gasoline-powered car. Edison realized that to successfully compete with the gasoline-powered car, the electric car required a rechargeable storage battery with a longer lifetime than those that were available. Edison knew that the lead-acid battery was too heavy and need a lot of maintenance. In order to compete with gasoline cars, the batteries had to be lighter and produce enough power to increase their travel range before needing a recharge. Edison worked on the development of the battery tirelessly. He subjected his storage batteries to intensive testing. He sent machines with the batteries loaded on 100-mile/day journeys until 5000 miles had been covered. His nickel-iron battery was much more durable than the commercially prevalent lead-acid battery. Edison promoted the electric wagon with his battery storage with an energy density more than double that of lead batteries. This would lead to longer tire life and a promising reduction in the cost of electric vehicles. Edison’s nickel-iron battery was commercially available in 1903. However, the nickel-iron battery was larger and more expensive than the lead-acid battery.

Henry Ford was a famous automobile developer and the inventor of modern manufacturing assembly systems. Ford joined the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 as an engineer. Ford designed his initial “quadricycle” in 1896, and it was his first attempt to build a gasoline-powered vehicle.

He had the opportunity to present his second design for his “quadricycle” at an annual meeting of Edison. Edison replied:

Young man, that’s the thing: you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either for they have to have a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.

After being inspired and encouraged by the idea of a cheap ICE-powered car, Ford left his job in 1899 at Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit and formed The Henry Ford Company in 1902. In 1903, the Ford Motor Company developed its first car Model A. In 1908, Ford developed an inexpensive, high-quality, low-cost, gasoline car - Model T. The Model T was a four-cylinder car and he announced the expected delivery as early as Oct. 1st with approximately 100 cars/day production. They were priced at $850.00 which was cheaper and more reliable than electrics offered at the time.

However, the possibility of an electric-driven automobile industry did not end there. A collaboration effort between Ford and Edison was confirmed in the New York Times on January 11, 1914:

The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile that would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.

Later that year, Ford announced Ford Electric as the result of their collaboration. Range anxiety and speed were pertinent issues to the success of electric vehicles. Even Ford was weary of the electric car’s range. After buying his wife a 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham, he later installed a charging station to be certain she could get home reliably. Edison labored intensely on the further development of the nickel-iron battery, but he was unable to reach an energy density capable of powering an ICE. The proposed battery was too expensive and large to enter the successfully into the market. Ford went on to leave the project in which he had invested, according to The Ford Century, $1.5 million.

The future of the automobile industry was hardly set in stone in contrast to a teleological view. Even after Henry Ford started his own company to manufacture Model T gasoline cars, Ford worked with Thomas Edison to develop an electric vehicle. Well into the 1910s, the possibility of an electric-powered automobile industry remained realistic.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

  1. Motor Age. v.14 1908 Jul-Dec. Chicago, Ill.: Class Journal Co., 1908.
  2. Automobile Trade Journal. v.13 1908 Sep-Oct. Philadelphia [etc.]: Chilton Company [etc.], 1908.
  3. Parmelee, Howard Coon, 1874-, and Eugene Franz Roeber. Chemical & Metallurgical Engineering. v.2 1904. New York: McGraw publishing company, inc,
  4. Jones, Francis Arthur. Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty Years of an Inventor's Life. New York: T. Y.Crowell & co, 1908.

Secondary Sources

  1. Høyer, Karl Georg. “The History of Alternative Fuels in Transportation: The Case of Electric and Hybrid Cars.” Utility Policy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2008, pp. 63–71.
  2. Bryan, Ford R. Friends, Families & Forays: Scenes from the Life and Times of Henry Ford. Wayne State Univ Press, 2016.
  3. Sulzberger, C. “An Early Road Warrior: Electric Vehicles in the Early Years of the Automobile.” IEEE Power and Energy Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, 2004, pp. 66–71., doi:10.1109/mpae.2004.1293606.
  4. Guarnieri, Massimo. “When Cars Went Electric, Part 2 [Historical].” IEEE Industrial Electronics Magazine, vol. 5, no. 2, 2011, pp. 46–53., doi:10.1109/mie.2011.941122.
  5. Bradley, Robert L. Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
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