Edison and the Electric Car

Edison Electric CarEdison’s contributions to sustainable technology are best seen in his efforts to develop methods for converting coal directly into electricity and to develop electric cars. In an 1884 interview Edison optimistically stated that "the great secret of doing away with the intermediary furnaces, boilers, steam engines, and dynamos [to produce electric power] will be found, probably within ten years."  He had already been working for two years to find a way to directly convert coal into electricity.  During this time he had been attempting to develop what was in essence early fuel cell technology based on the catalytic oxidation of carbon.  Edison applied for three patents but none of them proved commercially feasible. 

In 1884, another design enabled Edison to obtain a very strong current but it proved to be too dangerous after causing an accident that blew all the windows out of his laboratory.  By 1887, he had adopted an alternative approach to direct conversion using the principle that the magnetic capacity of iron diminished as its temperature was raised.  Although Edison applied this principle in the design of what he called a pyromagnetic generator, he was unable to commercialize it.

The inventor began a sustained effort to develop a storage battery suitable for automobiles in 1899, just four years after the introduction of the first practical gas-powered car.  Edison believed that an electrical storage battery could be developed that would prove “more economical” than gasoline.

Edison foresaw that in order to compete with the gasoline-powered car, the electric car would require a storage battery that was rechargeable, had a longer life than those currently available, produced sufficient power to allow the vehicle to travel long distances without recharging, and was light enough so that all of the electric power wasn’t used up in simply moving the battery.

In contrast to the widely used lead-acid battery, which was too heavy and required too much maintenance, Edison developed a nickel-alkaline battery that was much more durable and far less hazardous than the lead-acid battery. Unfortunately, the new battery was also larger and more expensive than the conventional lead battery.  Since most consumers could better understand the initial price of a vehicle than they could the long-term cost of operating it, automobile manufacturers were not willing to increase the initial price of their cars in order to use the more efficient Edison battery.  A number of companies, however, seeing the savings over time, used electric delivery trucks powered by the new batteries.

The timing of Edison’s invention was also unfortunate.  As Paul Israel, the director and general editor of the Edison Papers, explains in his biography Edison: A Life of Invention, Henry Ford introduced the inexpensive, high-quality, low-cost, gasoline-powered Model T in 1908, just one year after Edison had perfected his battery and some two-years before Edison was ready to manufacture it on a large scale.   The Model T captured the imagination of the American public and ushered in the age of the internal combustion engine.   By 1912, the development of the electric starter for gasoline cars, which replaced the crank, removed the one serious advantage—ease of start—that electric cars had over gasoline-powered cars, at least in the eyes of the consumer.

Incidentally, the difficulties that Edison identified—the weight and expense of the batteries and the problem of maintaining their charge over long trips—have continued to baffle automotive engineers down to the present time.   This is why automotive companies have moved to the hybrid electric/gasoline-powered car as an alternative to both gasoline-only or electric-only automobiles.