115 years ago, Edison thought the electric car’s time had arrived

His views on the perfect battery and cars proved premature

Driverless cars might really be round the corner now, but 115 years ago a chauffeur-less world seemed no less a near-possibility to American inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison. He saw chauffeurs as “the irresponsible instrument, in the public eye at least, of so many recent accidents with automobiles.”

Not that America was swarming with cars in 1902. Ford’s Model T had not been made. But the cars there were, and the chauffeurs who drove them, had not endeared themselves to Edison. Making a pitch for his nickel-iron batteries in the North American Review of July that year, he explained how the new batteries could popularise driving, and rounded off a list of possible gains with: “Above all, it will need no irresponsible chauffeur.”

Edison’s nickel-iron batteries had already passed four series of tests and were undergoing a fifth and final one. He thought they were the last word in power storage. “The final perfection of the storage battery, which I believe has been accomplished, will in my opinion bring about a multitude of changes and improvements in our business and social economy.”

The performance benchmarks of 1902’s electric cars seem rather modest today, but their range was impressive: A Baker automobile weighing 1,075 pounds with two men and the 332-pound battery pack went “62 miles over country roads”, averaging 11.2 miles per hour on a single charge. On comparatively level ground the car went 85 miles between charges.

Edison declared electric cars were the future: “The electric carriage of the future, and of the near future, will in my opinion not only supersede other types of automobiles, but it will be built and run on such practical lines that accidents will soon become things of the past…”

He estimated that the new reliable batteries would encourage more that 30% homeowners in New York’s suburbs to buy electric cars “to have a serviceable pleasure vehicle at their beck and call, without hiring a coachman to keep it clean and run it, with no horses to eat their heads off and no oats and hay to buy.”

An electric car priced “$700 and upwards” and costing just 50 cents for a day’s drive seemed to tick the right boxes for “the householder of moderate income.” But Edison was not happy with the build of American cars. “For safe and successful use, the automobile must, in my opinion, be made with heavier running gear, on the lines of the later French automobiles. The French types of electric carriages come nearer to my ideas in strength and stability than any other models…”

More than a century later, the search for the perfect battery is far from over, and electric cars are still some time away in the future.

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