Thomas Edison invented a few things that caught on. The phonograph, the motion picture camera, the stock ticker, the light bulb. Manhattan’s first electric power station.
He also invented and marketed a battery for the electric car.
And it wasn’t a wild-haired scheme. Edison was first and foremost a practical-minded man.
An interesting story in the New York Times last week reported that in 1900, 34 percent of all automobiles in New York, Boston and Chicago were powered by electric motors. Currently, it’s less than 1 percent. Additionally, nearly half of cars at the turn of century had steam engines. The Times piece walks through some of the technological and societal developments — as well as the business decisions — that led to the combustion engine’s eventual domination. It’s a good read.
Again, according to the Times, the Electric Vehicle Company, launched in 1897, was the largest automaker in the U.S. by 1900. (A recent Rueters story, citing the Henry Ford Museum, noted that Ford bought his wife at least two electric cars, offering 50 miles of driving range and top speeds of 35 miles per hour.) And, the company rented or leased its cars — for short, quick trips — or for a week or months at a time. I don’t know if ZipCar is aware of any of this, but it never ceases to amaze me how ideas get recycled.
The Times story also quotes David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History. Kirsch notes that most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades. He says we drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.
“Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility,” Kirsch tells the Times. “When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves — installing charging stations at our houses, for instance — we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car.
Meanwhile, efforts are apparently underway to improve on Edison’s quick-charging nickel-iron battery, according to a recent LiveScience story.