Politics: Good Ford

Even Ford and Edison Saw the Impropriety of the Gas-driven Car

By Jeffrey Bradley

Edison, Burroughs & Ford

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were good friends. (We didn’t know, either.) Ford, a fixture on the streets of Detroit since 1896, had worked for Edison at the Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. Shown Ford’s plans for a gasoline automobile, Mr Wizard of Menlo Park encouraged the nascent assemblyline-king to build away. Even stranger, they both worked together on an affordable electric vehicle. So what happened?

Shortly after Ford founded his motor company in 1903, Edison busied himself with batteries, especially nickel-iron ones, for cars. He tinkered with converting cars to electric power, and was soon denouncing gasoline vehicles: Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears… [no] terrifying throb of combustion… no water-circulating system… no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline.

Even tho’ Ford, by Ford!, remained hellbent on gasoline, he was working on a low-priced electric car by 1914. Interest was rife over this EV, especially after declaring that “within a year I hope to begin the manufacture of an electric automobile.”

But he needed a lightweight storage battery for operating long distances without recharging—something that Edison had been experimenting on for years.

What they came up with—let’s call it the Edison-Ford—was a car with batteries under the seat. Foundries were purchased and generating-plants retooled, and the Edison-Ford, set to appear in 1915 (for around $600), was slated to get between 50 and 100 miles per charge. But, apparently, much special work needed to be done, and no date of certainty was fixed. But Ford was brimming confidence, believing ultimately that “the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future.”

And Edison was no slouch when it came to building them either, manufacturing a front-wheel-drive electric in 1895. But the rumor-mill slowly faded, and the sharkish press, seeking blood elsewhere, forgot about it. Some say powerful oil cartels got to the team and they abandoned the car; this and a “mysterious” fire that destroyed key workshops seems to push matters onto the Grassy Knoll.

Much more believable is that this car’s downfall was caused by Ford’s demanding Edison’s nickel-and-iron batteries only. Unfortunately, these caused high internal resistance and weren’t capable of efficient power. When he found that substituted heavier lead-acid batteries had made the car unwieldy—despite having invested over $1 million, and very nearly buying 100,000 of Edison’s batteries—Ford let the whole program fall apart.

But, look! We have come full circle. Ford recently announced investing some $135 million in developing an electric car, guaranteeing that a quarter of its fleet will be electric by 2020.

Which brings us back to:

69 days and counting…

There’s no trick answer: Is it political suicide to ask us to sacrifice our desire for cheap oil? Has it become impossible to tell Americans the truth anymore? Is there nobody left to call for bold action?

Maybe we’ve had cheap oil so long that it’s hard for the average consumer to see why they shouldn’t be entitled to it forever… despite the fact that every president has called for “energy independence” since Eisenhower in 1957!

Or consider President Theodore Roosevelt: he not only warned of Big Oil’s perniciousness way back in the ‘90s—the 1890s, that is—he busted up Standard Oil and dragged John D Rockefeller from his lair. Bully for Teddy!

The way to get off this stuff, it seems, is to issue a call to arms—the way Kennedy did when he challenged the nation to put a man on the moon in a decade.

And things are worse now because the only readily available oil is in places that present huge environmental and financial risks. Ain’t no more Beverly Hillbilly gushers left to be shot from out of the ground, Gertrude. Besides the obvious dangers of carbon emissions on health and environment and the threat of catastrophic oil spills, we may be facing a real crisis sooner, when people start freezing to death during Northeast winters, or wholesale farm bankruptcies occur due to unaffordable fuel, or even the chemical industry starts to collapses because there’s not enough oil for making the plastic. In this scenario, time isn’t running out—it already has.

Can we live without oil? Well, since it’s only the last century that we’ve had it, the answer is yes. Will the transition be wrenching? Surely, but less so if we prepare for it (should have already prepared for it).

But instead, we focus on BP—they’re to blame! (Isn’t denial fun?) That’s like blaming the dealer for your drug habit, which won’t work, Jack. So what we can’t tell BP ourselves, we want Obama to do and do with some anger and angst. But wait: wasn’t he voted in because of his cool and precise demeanor? Can you picture him yelling at BP?

Now, but we can picture the overemoting Clinton yelling. Nevermind. And sending Attorney General Eric Holder down to announce massive criminal and civil investigations into the mess? Strictly ham-on-cheese. And it sure doesn’t help, when the President’s out golfing—with the press all over that BP guy for yachting—to hear his press secretary say, “I’ve seen rage from him.” Excuse us while we yawn and contemplate our fingernails.

Nope; the only around this problem is through it. Which makes you kind of wonder what might’ve happened had Henry Ford bought those batteries of Edison’s.


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