Thomas Edison to Henry Ford: Forget Electric Cars (Revisited)
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.
This is not the end of the story. Edison returned to electricity later in his career to make batteries viable for Ford’s vehicles. Henry Ford, in close friendship with Edison, wanted it badly. But the venture failed as I describe in my forthcoming book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies:
Edison got the battery bug later in his career, seeing this field as his way to right the wrongs that others had bestowed on him when General Electric was taken over by others in 1892. The Edison Storage Battery Company, founded in 1900, encountered early setbacks, but Thomas Edison soldiered on and produced a superior nickel-iron-alkaline product by 1909 (Jonnes, 351–52).
But a major hoped-for market, motor vehicles, was using gasoline, not electricity. But it was not for want of effort between two titans and dear friends. In 1914, Henry Ford announced a “Ford Electric” that would sell for $900 and have a range of 100 miles (Mom, p. 255). The brainchild of Thomas Edison himself, the concept—described as “Mr. Ford’s personal project” and “experimental” by Ford Motor Company—never got off the ground. The alkaline battery that penetrated the truck market was rejected by car makers because of its size and an incremental cost of between $200 and $600 per vehicle (Mom, pp. 255–56).
So it was back to 1896 for Ford and Edison despite the latter’s $1.5 million battery effort (Jonnes, 352).
- Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003.
- Mom, Gijs. The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.