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):
“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.