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Thomas Edison to Henry Ford: Forget Electric Cars (Is this advice from 1896 still relevant?)

The wisdom of the ages applies to energy. The smartest-guys-in-the-room approach to energy transformation by DOE secretary Stephen Chu, based on a false premise of the unsustainability of hydrocarbon energy, should note such history. The silver bullets that he is looking for have a long, failed history for good reason.

Take for example the electric car,

a perennially bad idea for receiving taxpayer subsidies. Below, produced verbatim, is an eye-witness account of a conversation between the father of electricity and the father of the automobile that took place some 113 years ago.

This conversation, dated as August 1896 by the eyewitness Samuel Insull (1859–1938), himself considered the father of the modern electricity industry, is recounted in his autobiography, The Memoirs of Samuel Insull (full cite at end):

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“He asked me no end of details,” to use Mr. Ford’s own language, “and I sketched everything for him; for I have always found that I could convey an idea quicker by sketching than by just describing it.” When the conversation ended, Mr. Edison brought his fist down on the table with a bang, and said:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require 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.

Later on Mr. Ford wrote:

That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was, but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me a complete approval. The man who knew most about electricity in the world had said that for the purpose my gas motor was better than any electric motor could be—it could go long distances, he said, and there would be stations to supply the cars with hydro-carbon. That was the first time I ever heard this term for liquid fuel. And this at a time when all the electrical engineers took it as an established fact that there could be nothing new and worthwhile that did not run by electricity. It was to be the universal power.

The above meeting between Mr. Henry Ford and Mr. Thomas A. Edison took place at a time when Mr. Ford was engaged in getting ready to build his second car. He has told me on a good many different occasions that the inspiration he received from meeting Mr. Edison had a great deal to do with his having the courage to go ahead with his work in trying to produce a cheap motor car operated by an internal combustion engine.

-  Insull, Samuel. The Memoirs of Samuel Insull. Polo, Ill: Transportation Trails, 1934, 1992, pp. 142–43.

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12 comments

1 Al { 02.19.09 at 2:53 pm }

Over ten years later, Edison and Ford were planning to develop an electric car. THINGS CHANGE! Edison had new battery patents, and Jay Leno’s garage has a 1909 Baker electric with the Edison alkaline battery, still usable after 100 years. It was not the power plant limitation, it was the Kettering electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac that killed the electric car in the 20th Century.

There is too much money in dealership operation, too much money in spare parts, too much money is maintenance for Detroit to switch to an electric car unless forced. Why would Detroit want people to own a car good for thirty years? Built in obsolescence is the rule of life in the automobile industry. They do it first with new style and new models, but they do it with parts that must be replaced.

2 libfree { 02.19.09 at 3:58 pm }

I understand your point entirely, but don’t you think that the long run goal would be electric cars? It might be way out in the future, but taking every device you use and powering it through the same energy source is a matter of convenience. It also separates the front end from the back end. No matter what methods we use to produce electricity, it doesn’t change the front end application of it. We don’t want to burn coal, we switch to nuclear. We no longer like nuclear, we switch to a magic energy producing widget. These switches would no longer require us to rebuild our cars, cellphones, computers ect.

3 Ben Gitlow { 02.20.09 at 11:25 pm }

I guess that the battery charge/discharge cycle will require more energy to move a car than a gas engine does. Most of the electric energy will come come from fossil fired power plants and there will be substantial transmission and distribution losses plus rectifier losses so that battery driven cars will result in increased use of fossil fuels. Also if battery driven cars are to make a significant reduction in internal combustion powered cars an enormous increase in electric power generation, transmission and distribution will be required. Fuel cell powered as have the same problem. More energy to make and distribute hydrogen than is converted by fuel cell.. In stead of spending money to try and develop new exotic technologies the expansion of nuclear energy would reduce thee use of fossil fuel and would generate no CO2. It would also be a boost to the industrial base of the US: steel workers, engineers, machinists, electricians and the construction and finance industries. The rest of the world manages the nuclear fuel cycle and we could to; it would be much easier if we reversed Jimmy Carters foolish ban on reprocessing spent fuel

4 rbradley { 02.21.09 at 9:28 am }

Al provides some good history above, the lesson being that the battery found its place as a secondary component on the automobile. Thomas Edison’s later work on batteries was unsuccessful in terms of making an economic electric car in the first decade of the 20th century, and the situation is much the same a century later.

5 Kevin in WI { 02.21.09 at 10:25 pm }

Libfree is correct in that the long-term goal should be electric cars, for the reasons he listed and for the reason that it is the most efficient method to get from thermal energy source to motive energy – regardless of the source of thermal energy. Once the technology barriers are overcome (battery cost and energy density), electric vehicles (of all types) will naturally become the dominant form of transportation. Those barriers are formidable, but they will be overcome, eventually. The only thing that’s debatable it is whether it is wise to subsidize electric technology to move the adoption point forward in time. It’s debatable because of all of the external factors (validity of anthropogenic climate change, politics of the thermal energy source, opportunity cost, etc.).

6 Tom Tanton { 02.22.09 at 4:35 pm }

The goal should NOT be for any particular solution because the needs of transportation are so varied: some require torque, some performance, some efficiency, some long distances. Various approches best serve different needs, so the goal should be to have many options, and allow consumers to choose what works for them. It is technically and economically wrong to assert that electric vehicles are “more efficient.” For just one example, gas-to-liquids (GTL) production of diesel is more efficient than state of the art electric generation, and even more so with storage loss and transmission. Couple that with higher energy density than with electric batteries and distance traveled is also improved. Of course some hybrids solve both, with electric generation on board: the diesel locomotive being the pre-eminent hybrid (nb: diesel locomotives burn diesel but the traction is provided by electric motors for torque purposes.) Another example is compressed natural gas. The goal should be innovation: that is inevitably impeded by government “forcing” production of one sort or another. Every technology/fuel has advantages and disadvantages and government falls into the fatal conceit of Hayeck when selecting a “winner.” The electric car had its chance more than once and been refused by drivers; it likely has another chance coming through the efforts of several developers. Let’s just wait and see whether consumers will take to the new electric choices.

7 Ernst Knolle { 03.05.09 at 8:49 pm }

To generate electricity from oil has a 70% thermal conversion loss, then power line transmission losses come to 20%, and finally battery in and out losses are 50%. So, when equally compared, a two seater , 40 mph and 100 mile distance ability, the electric car uses about 15 times as much energy as a gasoline powered car.

8 Ernst Knolle { 03.05.09 at 8:52 pm }

I am a professional engineer, Calif. Lic. 12372, I worked in power technology and transportation all my life.

9 Ernst Knolle { 03.05.09 at 8:53 pm }

I approve

10 Alex { 03.13.09 at 2:46 pm }

Ernst,
Sorry to break this to you, but you’re way wrong. Generating electricity in modern gas or even coal plants has thermal efficiencies of 50-60%. T&D losses are a mere 5%, depending on distance. Battery in and out as you say has 90% efficiency, and electric motor has 95% efficiency. So the total efficiency (plant to wheels) is around 40-50%, or TWICE that of a gasoline powered car. Moreover, the electricity can be generated from any energy source, including renewables and nuclear, which is where we want to go. Gasoline (or diesel) engines only run on hydrocarbon fuels.
Let’s stick to the engineering then OK?

Alex

11 Tavis { 07.30.09 at 6:55 am }

Its always interesting to debate these mostly imagined statistics but the importance of the conversation on topic here is a bit mislead. Thomas Edison was as much an Entrepreneur as he was an acclaimed inventor and brilliant scientist. He worked with electricity because he could see that fossil fuels had hit a dead end. there’s not much more to be done with them now is there? We got as far as was capable of the combustive energy sources as we could with the realization of rocketry. Likewise, unless the bones of an even more ancient and longer lasting species than the Dinosaurs are discovered in the future, then we aren’t going to get much more static power out of oil or coal than we already are. Many more examples are easily made.

The long of the short of it being: So far, we have not come close to the limits of electric power, and until we do, its folly to assume we never will.

What Thomas Edison was pointing out to Henry Ford is that Henry had simply realized a more immediately profitable industry in the Gas powered vehicle than was capable of electricity driven coaches. Tom simply said “Yeah dude! You’ll make fat cash from that!” Hence why Thomas Edison, who mind you was still a scientist as well, continued to make efforts towards Electric vehicles. And to think he made a viable replacement in only a decade or two !!!! Not at all surprising that again a new advancement was made in the fuel driven vehicles, to again shift the balance of Commerce in favor of building gas engines.

The major folly does not lie with the statistics of past failures vs successes on a financial field, but rather, with the loss of the life of one of the few men who had the decency and the balls to push into the future, rather then dwell in the past.

No one had put a decent effort towards electric power growth (Macro-scale power) until the end of last century. 80- 90 years of stagnant technology (in the industry of personal automobiles particularly), happily ignored, in favor of the material benefits of the pockets of a handful of now very wealthy, and not surprisingly very Old men.

The American dream was realized, we live it now, and it isn’t all that DREAMY… is it.

However there is a train still on the tracks steaming away with the steadfast power of shark in the ocean. Time. And as it passes by, we get older, and those who are born after us will be the ones to benefit from the incredible gains sown from the seeds of a new industrial revolution, while our memory is put on the dusty shelves of a library with the Foreword:
“Great Men, who fancied shiny disks and paper strips, instead of the fruitful growth of the human civilization.”

12 Horsepower Sure Beats Horses! (Part I: remembering what came before cars–and the failure of the electric vehicle) — MasterResource { 09.29.09 at 1:01 am }

[...] verdict of a century ago still holds–and for the same reasons. Thomas Edison was correct to pronounce the verdict to Henry Ford in [...]

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