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Edison's Auto Vision by Ed Wallace

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Edison's Auto Vision


As the 1890s were about to give way to the American Century, Thomas Edison became involved in three major projects. The first was to create a better manufacturing process for phonograph records, both to improve their quality and to lower the costs of recorded music. And, with a building boom transforming the nation, his second goal was to improve the quality and lower the manufacturing cost of Portland Cement. Finally, he wanted to create a superior battery to power electric cars. He succeeded wildly in the first two projects, even though his new manufacturing process produced so much Portland Cement that it kept that building material's price too low to allow much profit from the idea.

As for the battery of the future for automobiles, that didn't exactly work out as planned. But it did move the technology forward.

Lead Battery Electrics

In the turn-of-the-century market electric cars were not uncommon. After all, Studebaker sold electric cars as early as 1902. One of the first was given to Peter Studebaker's daughter, wife of Frederick Fish, the firm's new president. That vehicle was simplicity plus; a single lever, like a joystick, when pushed away sent the car forward, and when pulled back took it in reverse.

In her first outing in the car, Mrs. Fish managed to run over one of her New York neighbors. Frightened, she slammed the electric car into reverse and ran him over a second time. And yes, she then went forward over him again. Happily, in those days cars were smaller and much lighter; the gentleman simply stood up, dusted himself off and ran away as fast as he could. Mrs. Fish parked her new electric car then and there and never drove again.:rofl:

Those electric cars ran on lead batteries, and this is what Edison felt he could improve. With a lighter, less expensive and more powerful battery, he believed, he would revolutionize the coming automotive age.

Edison and Ford

In May of 1899, just as Edison was deciding to commit himself to making better batteries, numerous electric cars were shown at the annual New York Electrical Exhibition. Newspapers incorrectly stated that Edison was considering building his own electric car at the time, but within a few years he was seriously considering doing just that. The St. Louis Dispatch quoted Edison on Oct. 6, 1903, as saying that he wanted to build a $450 car for the masses. To which the newspaper added, "The long suffering poor will rise up and bless Mr. Edison."

This was more of Edison's genius for self-promotion. He was considered America's most brilliant inventor at the time, and Edison knew that if he just suggested he was working on a specific project, the media would run with it. That exposure, in turn, often brought him investors wanting to help fund his projects.

What slipped Edison's mind in all the excitement was that he had been shown the future of automobiles by one of his employees years earlier and had apparently forgotten about the encounter - although that employee, Henry Ford, believed the famed inventor had actually blessed his idea.

The meeting came about when Edison toured his electric company in Detroit, where Ford worked as head engineer. As Edison was Ford's only real idol, Ford rushed up to show him his sketches for an inexpensive automobile, albeit one that would use a gas engine. Edison patiently let Ford explain his idea and then said, "Son, you may have something there." Likely he was just trying to escape his over-eager employee; Ford, who believed Edison had proclaimed and blessed his idea as the future of cars, was too excited to sleep that night. That chance encounter was one of Ford's primary motivations to perfect his own vision of an automobile.

Imperfect until Too Late

Edison needed to create a new battery that would have enough storage capacity to run a vehicle for what he hoped would be 100 miles without recharging. Moreover, it had to have the ability to be recharged quickly and often without losing any storage capacity. To achieve that end the Wizard of Menlo Park believed that a variation of alkaline batteries would be the proper starting point for his research. Such batteries had existed for more than a decade and were used primarily for small consumer goods such as fans.

As all of Edison's inventions did, finding the battery's solution would take him years of non-stop experimentation with different materials. First he tried zinc copper, then moved on to cadmium copper. That combination yielded a superior working battery, but cadmium cost almost 30 times lead's price, which would make using it cost prohibitive.

Somewhere along the line he worked with nickel and cobalt, only to discover that reliable supplies of cobalt were almost unknown. But his optimism was such that in early 1901 he formed the Edison Storage Battery Company. Manufacturing started two years later, but it was another year and a half before his factory was producing much at all.

He offered numerous sizes for his batteries, conducting road tests on them even as they were being sold to vehicle manufacturers. As historian Paul Israel pointed out in his book on Edison's life and work, the old man was telling reporters that his batteries "will run for 100 miles or more without recharging. They can be charged in a few hours." Edison would tell others that his storage batteries were perfect.

That wasn't a truly accurate description of his improved batteries, and many periodicals devoted to the coming age of electricity called him out on it. In fact, Edison's superior batteries lost much of their storage capacity after numerous recharges and had a tendency to leak. At one point he stopped production to fix the manufacturing glitches and find a way to solve the storage capacity flaws.

It would be in the summer of 1907 when Edison announced he had found the answers to the problems with his batteries, and his factory resumed large-scale production. Now his batteries found their way into delivery trucks in major cities, and within months Edison improved his batteries using the nickel flake design. It was still bad timing as all of this took place just as Henry Ford brought his famed Model T to market.

The Public Chooses

The public was about to speak, and for their money gasoline-powered automobiles were going to be the future. Again according to Paul Israel, it was the advent of Charles Kettering's electric starter in 1912 that would nail the coffin shut on Edison's dreams for electric vehicles. Even owners of electric delivery trucks saw that electric starter as the one innovation that made gas-powered vehicles more functional - and much more user-friendly.

Edison, in his vision for transportation, never once considered the possibility that gasoline-powered cars were going to win the public over. But the reality was that using gasoline let the Model T travel long distances. What was more important, it could travel those distances on the rougher roads outside of America's largest cities. Edison's batteries required electricity, and that was unheard of out in rural America.

Edison's improved batteries didn't go away but were reconfigured for other industrial uses. And he had advanced battery technology in many ways, just not for widespread use in automobiles and trucks. And yes, consequently his battery company was profitable. But the sheer cost of developing this technology, along with losses from unprofitable ventures and the expense of decades of litigation to enforce his patent rights on other inventions, had all but drained Edison's personal finances.

Inventors Never Really Retire

The better battery was one of many late-life projects that didn't quite pan out, which would lead Edison to retire from a lifetime of invention that improved so many aspects of our lives. But even in retirement he would always be revered. Not only did the public not forget him, but his former employee, now the nation's best known manufacturer, Henry Ford - a man best described as Edison's biggest groupie - worshipped him.

For the last 15 years of his life, Henry Ford would number among his closest friends. And at times his vocal companion's effusive manner overwhelmed Edison, but he knew how to fix that little problem. Sitting with the ever-expounding Ford on the front porch of his Florida home, Edison would slowly turn down the volume on his hearing aid. Tuning Ford out, he just kept smiling and nodding encouragingly whenever Ford's lips stopped moving.

For his part, Ford appears to have lent Edison money in his final years and certainly asked his opinion on many of his inventions. Ford and Edison, along with Harvey Firestone, often took Ford's cars on camping trips. Their widely reported camping adventures in the 1920s inspired millions of Americans to use their automobiles to get back to nature.

And yes, Ford reminded Edison of their meeting years earlier, and of showing him the design Edison had seemed to bless for a gasoline-powered automobile. There's nothing to tell us whether Edison acknowledged that Ford's idea meant that his own dream of a world of electric cars would never come true.

© Ed Wallace 2012

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Association. He hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: [email protected], and read all of Ed's work at
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