Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Who Killed the Edison/Ford Electric Car?

This little story was something I found out about from my 8 year old, in one of his schools library books, about the first electric car by Thomas Edison. This obscure turn in history sent us down the path of oil dependence, pollution and wars.

"Thomas Edison had spent $3.5 million between 1903 and 1910 (equivalent to $71 million today) perfecting his nickel iron battery. He claimed it was half the weight of lead acid and had twice the energy density. His electric cars were demonstrably superior to the competition that were powered at the time by what we today know as Exide batteries, then controlled by a group of cartels. Those cartels sought to monopolize all forms of automotive transportation from bicycles to automobiles, gasoline and electric.

Just as Edison and Henry Ford were about to go into business together to offer a low cost electric car comparable to the Model T, a suspicious fire destroyed nearly all of Edison's West Orange, New Jersey research facility, curiously bypassing areas where the most flammable chemicals had been stored. Within months World War I would engulf Europe and eventually America and the dream of the electric car would fade into obscurity, a curious, forgotten footnote of history.

Edwin Black, author of Internal Combustion on the electric car conspiracy. Black weaves a compelling detective story that explains why the electric car failed despite its superiority as an urban transportation vehicle in an age when country roads were mud, suburbia didn't exist and gasoline was hard to find. Compared to the quiet, pollution free, dependable electric cars of the era, gasoline models were dirty, noisy and difficult to start, but that also gave them a certain machismo in the minds of the male motorist. But beyond that, electric cars also were stigmatized in the minds of public of that day as the tool of corporate swindle artists from the "Lead Trust" to Carl Pope's bicycle monopoly to the automobile cartel. In the context of the late 1890s and early 1900's, Black explained, electric car manufacturers were the 'bad guys', a complete reversal of where we are today which sees them as a means by which to save the planet.

"These were the Wall Street financiers, the bank manipulators, corporate raiders; and they decided to quash these internal combustion machine developers; names you'd now like Dodge and Cadillac."

Their legal instrument in this fight was George Selden's patent, which he'd acquired in the decades immediately after the American Civil War, and allegedly gave him the right to royalties on any and all automobiles built in America, if not the rest of the world. The patent was, in fact, nothing more than a simple line sketch, the kind of thing you'd draw on the back of an envelope or napkin. But with it, the cartel planned to intimidate and coerce its competitors with threats of expensive, protracted lawsuits.
Oddly at the time, the gasoline vehicle developers were the populists, Black said, but they would eventually join forces with the battery, electric car and bicycle cartels to form a super cartel, and in the process the electric car was abandoned in favor of the internal combustion machine.

"The one guy who would not [join] the cartel was Henry Ford. He did not want the internal combustion machine to be available for the rich man, the bank president and for the lawyer and for the doctor. He wanted the internal combustion machine to be available for all people as a kind of liberating American way of life. He was the populist.

Ford won his legal battles against the Selden patent in 1911. With the downfall of the Selden patent, internal combustion cars began to proliferate, but it was also at that point, said Black, that Henry Ford realized that he had won the battle, but lost the war as the dirty, polluting cars spread at the expense of the far cleaner electric models.

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