Welcome to the latest in a three-part series in which we explore three men determined to lead alternative energy into the future. Nikola Tesla said the sun could power everything (1899), and Thomas Edison said electricity was the way to power automobiles (1905). I now designate Henry J. Ford.
In fact, Henry Ford didn’t have much to say about energy, but he was a total pragmatist when it came to his business. His famous line was, “My client can be any color as long as he’s black.”
Henry Ford was born in Greenfield County, Michigan in 1863 to an upper middle class family. He was educated in an “eight-year-old” one-class school. At 15, he received a watch that he took apart and then reassembled.
He rejected farm life to the anger of his brothers and his father. He was above all a mechanical handyman. His interest in the field of mechanical devices took him to Westinghouse and then to Edison where he maintained and repaired the machines at the plant. He became Edison’s chief engineer and the relationship began. Ford built its first steam engine in 1887 and was fascinated by the mechanics the future held.
Electric car Edison Ford
There have been ups and downs regarding the Edison Ford electric car, and my research shows that historians are unsure of what really happened. It is known that Edison built an electric car in 1895 and that Henry Ford was its chief engineer. Ford worked at the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, but ultimately resigned to start his own Ford Motor Company.
Edison encouraged Ford to go electric by offering this advice:
“Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring gears and crushers with their many levers to be confused. There isn’t that uncertain, almost terrifying throb and roar of the mighty combustion engine. There is no water circulation system to break down, no dangerous and smelly gasoline and no noise.
It was also noted that women preferred electric cars because they were easy to start and quiet and there was no gear shifting. Back then, starting a car was an “art”. You had to adjust the throttle and choke, spin the car to start it, and at the risk of sounding sexist, it required a bit of muscle. Also, if you don’t let go at the right time, you could break your arm on the first few units as the crank will move backwards. Also, in colder climates like Michigan in the winter, you had to drain the water because the antifreeze was not invented or was too expensive. You also had to change the oil in the winter and keep it warm as the different grades of oil were not available.
Taking all this into account, Ford started his own business in 1903. However, he abandoned the idea of the electric car and switched to the gasoline engine. Rumor has it that he overturned his electric car due to its high center of gravity caused by the weight of the Edison batteries and swore he would never consider the idea again.
A few years later, he changed his mind, although there is little information about the reasons. We knew there was the Edison-Ford electric car in sight. On January 11, 1914, the NY Times published this statement from Ford for the advent of the Edison-Ford electric car: “Edison Ford for this battery-powered car.
Ford said, “In a year, I hope, we will start manufacturing an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things that are a year away, but I am ready to tell you about my plans. The point is, Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile that would be cheap and passable. The cars were built for experimental purposes, and we are now satisfied that the path is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a lightweight storage battery that would run long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.
1915 passed … 1916 passed … and there was still no production car.
Electric car, no; assembly line, yes
At the turn of the 20th century, there were a lot of people competing for the market for all cars, but especially electrics. I would suggest taking a look at Horseless Age magazine from 1901-05. You would see a variety of products coming out to support cars. Strangely enough, neither Edison nor Ford were even mentioned in this magazine.
I’m going to step in with my humblest take on why Ford never came out and made no statement about the electric car that still hasn’t been produced. Was he hostile to the electric car? Absolutely not because it was all about innovation. There are, in fact, many important logistical reasons, however, why it did not take off. Ford was more about practicality and simplicity. The electric car was much more expensive. Ford’s contribution to the world wasn’t his car, it was the assembly line.
His manufacturing skills are what won the day. A Model T cost around $ 600 ($ 15,000 today). It was very competitive in terms of costs. The electric car market was mainly reserved for women and doctors. Women preferred them because they were quiet and reliable, and doctors preferred them for their reliability and quick start, without adding water, oil, etc. Charging stations were also unknown. With gasoline engines, you could tell how much fuel was left, even if you hadn’t looked at the gauges on your dashboard – you had to stop your car, go back and look at the fuel gauge on the tank. ‘gasoline.
IMHO, if research money was available I think they would be able to make improvements to the battery as it was all chemistry and testing materials. Edison’s iron-nickel battery was an incredible improvement for its time. Some of these batteries are still operational today. The big what if is “What if there was enough market interest then,” how far would we have gone with lightweight, fast-charging batteries?
PS – For those who are interested, take a look at Jay Leno’s garage and look for the ‘1916 Owens Magnetic’, which was state of the art at the time. You could say it was the first hybrid. Leno had to install an aftermarket electronic regulator to make sure he wouldn’t run out of power without warning. He apparently loves this car.