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I've been reading Internal Combustion:  How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives by Edwin Black (NY:  St Martin's Press, 2006  ISBN-13: 978-0-312-35907-2) after seeing Black on CSPAN.  

One of the informative stories he tells is of the partnership between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to build an electric vehicle system together before WWI.

(136)  In the fall of 1912, the promise of Edison's new battery rose to the next level.  His latest wizardry would allow every home, automobile, and industrial source to function as a freestanding generating station.

In mid-September 1912, Edison announced the result of some fifty thousand experiments conducted during seven painstaking years - a radical new energy-self-sufficient home.  He called it the Twentieth Century Suburban Residence.  ostentatiously overstuffed with every modern gadget and appliance from a coffee percolator to a washing machine, to room heaters and coolers, to phonographs and tiny movie projectors - the mansion was an electric marvel.  Every device and system, basement to roof, was powered by batteries replenished continuously by a small-scale household electrical generator.

(128)  In May 1901, Edison formed the Edison Storage Battery Company and in August 1903 began churning out the cells composed of nine iron and nickel plates.  Twenty such cells were packed under a Baker run-about and other vehicles and road tested for as many as five thousand rough and bumpy miles to demonstrate durability.  Edison's batteries could be recharged in about three and a half hours, or about half the overnight duration required for lead competitors.  Most exciting, he planned a handy supportive infrastructure to recharge the batteries.  He wanted to create a widespread recharging network at trolley lines and central electrical stations, with such a network extending into the countryside.  Where such facilities did not exist, he suggested erecting small windmills attached to electrical generators that would light the home at night and recharge the batteries while occupants slept, thereby creating energy independence for the average home and vehicle.  Windmills or electrical siphoning from other facilities, he said, would be cheaper than the growing reliance on gasoline.

(137)  The system's secret was an array of three simple tanks:  one for water, a second for oil, and a third for gasoline - all connected to an on-site mini-generator itself regulated by an automatic voltage adjuster and a series of circuit breakers.  The resident was to "start his engine and forget it" for days at a time.  The system worked this way:  Edison's Type A nickel-iron batteries would run the house and all its gizmos.  Every two to three days, the batteries would become discharged.  The system would detect the drained batteries. When cued by the system, the on-site generator would automatically replenish the nickel-iron batteries in a seven-hour recharging session, often even as the homeowner slept.  A staged and redundant array of batteries ensured that energy levels throughout the abode remained constant even as some units were being recharged.  The same generator would recharge the new Type A-powered vehicle soon to be mass-produced by Ford, thus completing the circle of individual energy independence.

The first fully operational house was Edison's grand mansion at Llewelyn Park, New Jersey.  For its coverage, the New York Times photographed the home inside and out, toured all the rooms, and verified demonstrations of endless electrically driven devices, from toothbrush sanitizers to foot warmers.  The pocket generating plant was a narrow and compact machine, designed to be situated either in the yard, in a shed, or in the basement.  Its cost:  as little as $500, although it came in larger and more expensive sizes capable of supplying greater-scale housing.  Edison's Twentieth Century Suburban Residence would provide cheap, independent power to any suburban abode with a lot or the needed building space as well as the rural home beyond the lines of city power plants.  Self-sufficiency was no longer a vision for tomorrow, but a reality.

Initially, the generators would operate off a small tank of gasoline that periodically needed to be refilled.  Clearly, this temporarily retained the tether to petroleum.  But plans were to switch from dependence on a modicum of weekly gasoline to small residential windmills - that is, as soon as one could be perfected.

Perhaps if they had continued their work, Edison and Ford would have come up with something like the windmills Marcellus Jacobs made in the 1920s and 1930s.  I wonder if Buster Keaton's "Electric House" silent comedy was based upon Edison's vision.

This wasn't even the first attempt at thinking through an electric vehicle infrastructure.  Originally, it was electric cars and trucks which seemed to be the winning ticket in the automotive race.

Salom and Morris and their Electric Carriage and Wagon Company had  a 14 cab taxi fleet garaged on 39th St in NYC by 1897 and  

(67) ....worked to laminate economies of scale and sense to good electromotive mechanics.  A central garage crew of only six, and that included a washer, was all the staff needed to keep the dozen or so cabs humming seven days each week.  Using specially constructed garage cranes, slightly elevated auto rails, and removable vehicle trays, batteries could be swapped out by a single mechanic in just seventy-five seconds.  Spent batteries were then mechanically shuttled to the recharging room for the overnight refresh.  Cruising at speeds of 10 to 20 mph, each taxicab covered some eleven city miles per day.  In constant use, the small fleet transported approximately a thousand passengers monthly over a rough average of about one thousand miles per week.  Accidents and mishaps occurred only once every 360 miles, but this number diminished as drivers gained more experience with the new machines.

By 1899 some major manufacturers were designing the delivery infrastructure with electrical recharging stations, electrical hydrants to be installed on the streets like fire hydrants.

(74) General Electric produced a commercial version, dubbed the Electrant, to cheaply dispense charges of 2.5 kilowatt hours of electricity for a mere twenty-five cents.  Resembling a parking meter, a chest-high box contained wires and a connection to the same electrical grid that powered the rest of the city. GE was merely waiting to install them in every city.

In my storeroom, I have a copy of the poster which was a winning entry in a nation-wide contest to envison the electric vehicle future.  I think it was sponsored by GM.  It showed Cambridge, MA in 2008 with electrical vehicles everywhere and charging bollards, Electrants, on the streets.  That contest was in the early 1990s.  I thought they did a great job, which is why I asked for a copy of their poster presentation.  Little did I know that it was at least the third time these plans had been drawn up.

Here's their version of a charging station for electric vehicles:

Originally posted to gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 10:33 PM PST.


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Comment Preferences

  •  You should expand more on what the corporations (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    GreyHawk, slksfca, epppie

    and governments did to derail alternatives - not just the electic car?

    "Buy a Boat. Save the Seed."

    by cumberland sibyl on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 10:55:27 PM PST

    •  Expansion (10+ / 0-)

      Haven't finished my notes yet.  It's a convoluted story.  In short, from the very beginning, industrialists wanted to monopolize the market.  The guy who had the corner on bicycle manufacture wanted to corner the market on cars.  He thought electric would work at first and helped form a Lead Trust for lead batteries.  Then his group found a patent on internal combustion that had broad claims so they could use it to keep all others out of the business or paying premiums to them.  Ford took eight years to break that spurious patent.  

      Black also writes about the Milwaukee Road and the blighted promise of electric railways as well as the real, actual, proved up to the Supreme Court conspiracy against inter-urban trolley systems throughout the US by GM, Mack Truck, Firestone Rubber, and Standard Oil of California among others.  They'd buy trolley companies with shell corporations and then scrap the electric system to replace it with diesel buses under captive contracts.  

      The goal has never been to provide what is necessary but to make as much profit as possible.  Financial chicanery has always been a higher priority than serving costumers, to say nothing about society in general.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:13:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  thanks - that stuff about Standard Oil and the (0+ / 0-)

        urban trolley systems I knew a little about, but I have the feeling the story is much bigger.  

        Are you going to do another - diary - or expand this one when you finish your notes?

        Do you recommend the book?

        "Buy a Boat. Save the Seed."

        by cumberland sibyl on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 07:24:26 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  More Expansion (0+ / 0-)

          When I finish typing up my notes, I will do another diary (or two) about the book.  

          It's a good history, although a little repetitive and not terribly well written but very well researched.  Black has a good story to tell and the tools to tell it.

          I generally write about books that I believe deserve wider recognition.  If I don't recomment a book, I'll make it clear.

          At I link to all the books I've diaried so far.

          Thanks for reading and asking for my opinion.  I don't know anything really and that's quite enough.

          Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

          by gmoke on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 10:22:22 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Mind you, this was also Edison covering for DC... (9+ / 0-)

    He reallllllly wanted to promote DC electricity, due to his patents, remember.

    DC does not work very far from a generating station, it fades quickly along transmission lines, so he was trying everything to come up with a marketing campaign that'd allow for DC hype. That'd be the standalone home generators and storage cells mentioned here.

    Tesla's AC was poised to take over the market (which it did, via Westinghouse, etc), and Edison was so vicious with his marketing that he even publically electrocuted cats and dogs with AC to show how "dangerous" it was.

    His design team he oversaw invented and refined the light bulb, but the man was an ass.

    I'd take this as the equivalent of modern concept  marketing materials. It was meant to attract investors.

    "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross" - Sinclair Lewis

    by Loboguara on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:10:37 PM PST

    •  Not only dogs and cats (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rapala, GreyHawk, SomeStones, epppie

      but an elephant, and though Edison opposed capital punishment, he promoted the electric chair (AC version of course) for executions.

      He was financed by JP Morgan and the Vanderbilts, and his (and their) legacy is General Electric.

      There is no more New Frontier - we have got to make it here - Henley/Frey

      by badger on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:24:06 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  AC/DC Time Frame (6+ / 0-)

      This was perhaps part of the AC/DC war between Edison and Tesla, backed by Westinghouse, but it doesn't quite fit the time frame from what I've gathered with a little googling.


      Experts announced proposals to harness the Niagara Falls for generating electricity, even briefly considering compressed air as a power transmission medium. Against General Electric and Edison's proposal, Tesla's AC system won the international Niagara Falls Commission contract. The commission was led by Lord Kelvin and backed by entrepreneurs such as J. P. Morgan, Lord Rothschild, and John Jacob Astor IV. Work began in 1893 on the Niagara Falls generation project and Tesla's technology was applied to generate electric power from the falls.

      Some doubted that the system would generate enough electricity to power industry in Buffalo. Tesla was sure it would work, saying that Niagara Falls had the ability to power the entire eastern U.S. On November 16, 1896, electrical power was sent from Niagara Falls to industries in Buffalo from the hydroelectric generators at the Edward Dean Adams Station. The hydroelectric generators were built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation using Tesla's AC system patent. The nameplates on the generators bore Tesla's name. He also set the 60 hertz standard for North America, although the initial installation at Niagara was 25 Hz. It took five years to complete the whole facility.

      AC replaced DC for central station power generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the safety and efficiency of power distribution. Edison's low-voltage distribution system using DC ultimately lost to AC devices proposed by others: primarily Tesla's polyphase systems, and also other contributors, such as Charles Proteus Steinmetz (of General Electric). Tesla's Niagara Falls system was a turning point in the acceptance of alternating current. Eventually, Edison's General Electric company converted to the AC system and began manufacture of AC machines.

      I would submit that by the time Edison teamed up with Ford to produce electric vehicles, which were still a purely DC market, the outcome of the AC/DC war was already fairly settled.  The Ford side of the story is of more interest to me as Ford had spent eight years breaking a patent that had allowed gasoline automobiles to be claimed by one trust.  Ford, who had made the gasoline engine  car affordable was now switching to electricity.  Later, in the 1920s, Ford experimented with ethanol and stated his belief that petroleum-based fuels should be superseded by fuels derived from biomass.

      There's wheels within wheels here.  Don't get caught up in the Edison-Tesla brawl.  I think it is a side issue in this aspect of Edison's work.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:32:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Edison a genius? (5+ / 0-)

    A lot of what you mention is considered part of the biggest blunder Edison ever made. His forray into DC power was disastrous and impractical. The real genius was Nikola Tesla to who we owe a wealth of gratitude for AC. While we are at it we can also thank him for radio (another one of his stolen contributions). I doubt that we can overestimate Tesla's contributions. Even Edison knew his DC setups were garbage, in time. I would not dig to deep in that direction. Edison wasn't on to something great with DC stations everywhere, IMHO.

    •  The Battery Fight (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Black writes about the fight between Edison and the Lead Trust which controlled the lead acid batteries.  Edison had his own nickel iron batteries and the two groups competed as underhandedly against each other as Edison did with Tesla on AC/DC.

      Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

      by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:38:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  And insult to injury... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ybruti, rapala, epppie
      Tesla went on to win the "Edison Medal" with the following apt remark...
      Were we to seize and eliminate from our industrial world the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle. Yes, so far reaching his work that it has become the warp and woof of industry. The name of Tesla ... marks an epoch in the advance of electrical science. From that work has sprung a revolution.
      B. A. Behrend, engineer and colleague of Tesla, 1917

      For those who don't know the man, he was both genius and a little bit mad at the end.  Such seems too often the case with geniuses.  He invented radio, radar, x-ray photography, neon and flourescent lights, particle accelerators (an open ended vacuum tube), remote control robotics (a very interesting tale if you look it up), oh, and AC current and the brushless commutator, of course.

      The Supreme Court overturned Marconi's radio patent and gave it to Tesla years after the famous yacht race Marconi broadcast.  At the time, Tesla was already using radio return signals as primitive radar to track thunderstorms as they moved across the country.  Tesla's AC current made mass production of aluminum possible.  Unless you live in a cave, you literally can't look around without seeing Tesla's work or it's descendants.

      There is a video on Google that I'm hesitant to link to.  It's some show called Phenomenon that gives a lot of good info about Tesla wrapped up with some tinfoily UFO quality death ray stuff.  Watch if you like, but no matter what is said of the man in his later age and whether you believe it or not, he did indeed invent all the things I listed above.

  •  What People See (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, rapala, Capn Guts, epppie

    It is surprising to see how people respond to diaries, what they pick to comment on.  Three out of eight comments here have jumped on the opportunity to praise Tesla and denigrate Edison which was the last thing on my mind.  Maybe I should have titled the diary "Pre-WWI Energy Independence:  Edison to the Rescue" to more clearly show my bent and highlight the tongue in my cheek for old Tom.  Not being aware of any work Nikola Tesla did on automobiles and transportation, I am surprised to see his name come up so quick.  (Alexander Graham Bell did some intriguing work on marine propulsion but that is another story altogether.)

    I wanted to show that a practical electric vehicle infrastructure has been designed at least three different times that I know of and each time it was pretty much the same model and each time entrenched business interests have run right over it.  What that has to do with Edison's fight with Tesla I don't know.  What that has to do with the truth or falsity of Edison's reputation also escapes me.

    There's always been a vision a decentralized, distributed power vision that runs counter to the centralization and corporate control model we have.  Even when backed by such powerful people as Edison and Ford, that decentralized model has not been able to achieve economic or even social viability.  Why that is and what we can do now to change it is what I'd like to talk about.  Not Nikola Tesla versus Thomas Alva Edison.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at

    by gmoke on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:54:21 PM PST

    •  Sorry I'm so sensitive to the topic (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rapala, hypersphere01, epppie
      And you have indeed put together an interesting tale of history repeating itself.  I admit that I just finished the rest of your diary.  I'm not one to usually pop off like that.  The name Edison just gets me going.

      It's sad how many amazing ideas (or even the same idea) have been crushed by the powers-that-be at the time.

  •  Small minor side note (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Get Keaton's Electric House without the $5 charge

    Now to see if I can address the acutual topic.

  •  Now the battery & car (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, rapala, Capn Guts

    The early Edison batteries had problems - leakage, short lifespan. Edison pulled them and spent years developing a better version. This did do some harm to the image of the battery, how important to its acceptance I don't know.

    There are several real problems with the nickel-iron cell.  It forms hydrogen when being charged, which leads to an explosion hazard. Overcoming this can be do with catalysts to combine the H2 with oxygen in the air, forming water that runs back into the battery; however this does add to the cost and complexity.

    The cell generates a voltage of about 1.15 volts, while the lead-acid batter is around 2 volts per cell. So 6 lead-acid cells is about the same as 10 nickel-iron cells, which made the lead-acid batteries cheaper and smaller although often still heavier.

    The lifespan of of the battery is better than most lead-acid ones, around 10 years or so. However the nickel-iron cell tended to be replaced with the nickel-cadmium cell, with similar voltages but a life of around 25 years.

    Recharging was a bit more difficult than covered here. With DC mains the voltage needed to be matched to the batteries, either through stacking a lot of cells in series, or through inserting power resistors in series which wasted a lot of power.

    With AC mains transformers could be used to adjust the voltage, but rectifying the AC to DC for charging left much to be desired. Originally this was done using a 110/220 V AC moter to drive a DC generator at the proper voltage. Later mercury arc recifiers were developed, which were useful for larger installations.

    In both cases unattended recharging was problimatic. Overcharging with damage to the batteries and/or charging equipment was common, the automatic controls did not function well so human backup was needed.  

    The electrics tended to be slower than the steam and IC engine cars, while the steamers had a warm-up delay (although there were some clever work-arounds for that). That, combined with the desire of many people to go out into the countryside, made the electric a bit less attractive than the steamers and gasoline IC cars.

    I'm not sure that Edison's Twentieth Century Suburban Residence wasn't a DC based system. At that time the only decent way to get from DC to AC was to use the DC to run a motor that turned an AC generator, overall efficiencies weren't that great. For low power demands, such as just a radio, a 'buzzing' relay could be used to chop the DC, which was then run through a transformer; fussy and often noisy. So I suspect he decked the hosue out with DC versions of all the appliances, while almost all commericial ones were AC. Heaters and incandescent lights don't care about AC/DC, but they do care about voltage, I assume he was running his battery stack to give around 110V.

    Finally there is this:

    Ford joined the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 and became chief engineer by 1896. In his spare time, he had already built his first gasoline-powered automobile, which he called the "quadricycle," and was working on a second. In August 1896, Ford attended a convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies at Manhattan Beach, New York, and, after dinner, was introduced to Edison as the builder of a gasoline car. Edison, though hampered by his increasing deafness, expressed great interest and asked many detailed questions. As later related by Ford, Edisom reportedly advised:

    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 have to have 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


    While true Edison and Ford tried at making a successful electric, it just didn't stick. However their theme of independence resonated with American ideals. There were many stories, mostly in the SF vein, based on updated versions of those ideals.

  •  gmoke, I hope you'll consider crossposting this (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    at Progressive Historians.

  •  what about a cottage thing... (0+ / 0-)

    I know people do conversions to electric at home. If I tried to build a commuter EV I would need easy to read plans and please understand I am just another chuckle-head so easy really does mean easy but I have not found any in the few searches I have tried, keeping in mind I have more time than money and have spent money on other types of plans that were weak in many key areas. Open-source plans of a budget build would move me a little closer to tinkerer's joy.  

  •  I added the teaching tag (0+ / 0-)

    and will include this diary in my weekly roundup of what have you got to learn? (or teach)

    What are you reading? on Friday mornings
    What have you got to learn? (or teach) on Saturdays

    by plf515 on Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 06:25:21 AM PST

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