How Thomas Edison & Henry Ford Envisioned a Low-Priced Electric Vehicle in 1914, Almost Changing the Direction of Automobile History

Few inven­tions have come to define twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry mobil­i­ty as much as the elec­tric car. As report­ed at EVBox by Joseph D. Simp­son and Wes­ley van Bar­lin­gen, the num­ber of elec­tric vehi­cles on the road has explod­ed from “neg­li­gi­ble” in 2010 to “as many as 10 mil­lion” by the end of 2021. Elec­tric vehi­cle man­u­fac­tur­er Tes­la “is the most valu­able auto­mo­tive com­pa­ny on the plan­et,” worth “an esti­mat­ed $1 tril­lion.” That com­pa­ny takes its name from inven­tor and alter­nat­ing-cur­rent pio­neer Niko­la Tes­la, but it was under the influ­ence of Tes­la’s rival Thomas Edi­son that the elec­tric car went through much of its ear­ly evo­lu­tion.

“At about the time Ford Motor Co. was found­ed in 1903, Edi­son had made inroads with bat­tery tech­nol­o­gy and start­ed offer­ing nick­el-iron bat­ter­ies for sev­er­al uses, includ­ing auto­mo­biles,” writes Wired’s Dan Strohl. At the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the vehi­cles on Amer­i­can roads ran on three dif­fer­ent kinds of pow­er: 40 per­cent used steam, almost as many used elec­tric­i­ty, and round 20 per­cent used gaso­line.

Nev­er hes­i­tant to pro­mote his own tech­nolo­gies, Edi­son declared that “elec­tric­i­ty is the thing,” with its lack of “whirring and grind­ing gears with their numer­ous levers to con­fuse,” of “that almost ter­ri­fy­ing uncer­tain throb and whirr of the pow­er­ful com­bus­tion engine,” of a “water-cir­cu­lat­ing sys­tem to get out of order,” of “dan­ger­ous and evil-smelling gaso­line.”

As BBC Future Plan­et’s Alli­son Hirschlag tells it, “Edi­son claimed the nick­el-iron bat­tery was incred­i­bly resilient, and could be charged twice as fast as lead-acid bat­ter­ies.” He even had a deal in place with Ford Motors to pro­duce this pur­port­ed­ly more effi­cient elec­tric vehi­cle.” Alas, “by the time Edi­son had a more refined pro­to­type” — one that could be dri­ven from Scot­land to Lon­don — “elec­tric vehi­cles were on the way out in favor of fos­sil-fuel-pow­ered vehi­cles that could go longer dis­tances before need­ing to refu­el or recharge.” It did­n’t help, as Simp­son and van Bar­lin­gen add, that “after the dis­cov­ery of oil in Texas, gaso­line became cheap and read­i­ly avail­able for many, while elec­tric­i­ty only remained avail­able in cities.” As a result, elec­tric vehi­cles had “almost com­plete­ly dis­ap­peared from the mar­ket” by the mid-nine­teen-thir­ties.

By the mid-twen­ty-thir­ties, how­ev­er, elec­tric vehi­cles will quite pos­si­bly dom­i­nate the mar­ket, and 200 years after their inven­tion at that. “It is said that the first elec­tric vehi­cle was dis­played at an indus­try con­fer­ence in 1835 by a British inven­tor by the name of Robert Ander­son,” write Simp­son and van Bar­lin­gen. The twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry cen­tu­ry saw its devel­op­ment set back by the slow devel­op­ment of bat­tery tech­nol­o­gy, com­bined with the sud­den devel­op­ment of gaso­line-relat­ed tech­nolo­gies and infra­struc­ture. But eco­nom­ic, envi­ron­men­tal, and polit­i­cal fac­tors have con­verged to make it seem as if elec­tric­i­ty is, indeed, the thing after all, and cars pow­ered by it are posi­tioned to come roar­ing — or at least hum­ming — back.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Fly­ing Car Took to the Skies Back in 1949: See the Tay­lor Aero­car in Action

New­ly Unearthed Footage Shows Albert Ein­stein Dri­ving a Fly­ing Car (1931)

The Time­less Beau­ty of the Cit­roën DS, the Car Mythol­o­gized by Roland Barthes (1957)

A Har­row­ing Test Dri­ve of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s 1933 Dymax­ion Car: Art That Is Scary to Ride

The World’s Fastest Solar Car

Behold the First Elec­tric Gui­tar: The 1931 “Fry­ing Pan”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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