Thursday, December 28, 2006

Does Mourning Become the Electric? 1: The Rise of the Electric Automobile


In the 1880s, the streets of America's cities were not only mean but also a menace to public health. Each day in New York City, for example, tens of thousands of horses labored to pull passenger omnibuses, streetcars, freight wagons and carriages. Each day these same horses deposited 60,000 gallons of urine and 2,500 tons of manure on its 250-plus miles of paved streets. It took a strong stomach and the skills of an acrobat to cross a street. On damp days, pedestrians contended with syrupy puddles of foul-smelling manure alive with flies. In dry weather, the germ-laden droppings were pulverized by the animals' hooves into a fine powder carried everywhere by the wind, even into homes.

For a two-horse team to pull a fully loaded omnibus or streetcar designed for 40 passengers was strenuous work, especially since these were often overcrowded. Cruelty to animals was regarded as a necessary evil. Many horses died in the streets and their carcasses had to be hauled away. No wonder city dwellers saw the smoke- and ash-belching steam locomotives of the newly built elevated railroads as an improvement.

Streetcars and subways eventually replaced horse cars and elevated steam railroads. Today, cars, buses and trucks, powered by internal combustion engines, serve in place of horse-drawn carriages and wagons. In their obscene proliferation, however, we have created a Frankenstein monster. Our cities are today choked by noxious gases from the exhausts of millions of vehicles slowed to a crawl. Billions of barrels of petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, are imported at enormous expense and consumed at an ever-increasing rate.

More than a century ago, electric car pioneer Pedro Salom, alarmed over gasoline's downside, raised the specter of a future dominated by internal combustion engines: "All the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odor. Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell as a sacrifice for having displaced the superannuated horse, and consider whether such a system has general utility or adaptability."

In the intervening years, we have not curbed our unseemly appetite for petroleum or recognized the threat posed by our selfish consumption of it. Environmentalists now suggest the clean-running electric car--or its cousin, the hybrid car--as a way out of our joint conservation and pollution predicament. Does a forgotten chapter in the history of technology suddenly have new relevance?

The First Electric Car
In the 19th century, the key to a practical electric vehicle was the storage battery, invented and perfected in France. The first such battery was devised by Gaston Planté in 1859. Improvements by Camille Faure in 1880 allowed sufficient current to be generated to power road vehicles. Experiments with battery-powered streetcars began in the early 1880's. An electric vehicle that did not need steel rails would usher in the next generation.

In automobile history books, the honor of constructing the first successful American electric motor car goes to William Morrison, of Des Moines, Iowa. The date is given as 1890. Morrison later claimed he had built and operated an electric carriage as early as 1888, insisting it had been run in the Seni Om Sed parade that year. Contemporary Des Moines newspapers show Morrison's memory to have been faulty. The Seni Om Sed parades (the name is Des Moines spelled backwards) did not begin until 1889. For the record, his electric carriage was not run publicly until September of 1890--in the second Seni Om Sed parade.

However, an electric vehicle was in operation in the East as early as 1888, the brainchild of an obscure yet prolific inventor, Philip W. Pratt. His patents included the rubber chair tip, the rubber crutch tip, rubber heel plugs, machines for making rubberized cloth, and several types of nonskid tires. Mr. Pratt may indeed deserve the title of "father of the American electric automobile." His invention might well have gone unnoticed but for the journalistic professionalism of the editor of a short-lived Boston magazine devoted to the wonders of electricity, Modern Light and Heat. Writing in the issue of August 2, 1888, the editor noted, "We received an invitation last Friday from a gentleman who is giving much attention to electric vehicles--Mr. P.W. Pratt of Boston--to take a ride on an electric tricycle that had just been completed for him by a well-know electrical manufacturing concern of this city."

Power was supplied by "six cells of the Electrical Accumulator Company's storage batteries, weighing all told, 90 pounds and a specially constructed tricycle motor connected to the driving apparatus by chain gearing." The date of this demonstration of Pratt's electric tricycle thus was July 27, 1888. Until an earlier claimant surfaces, that date and Mr. Pratt's name deserve to be added to the record books. Unfortunately, no additional information about this machine appeared in Modern Light and Heat. Nor have any images of this conveyance survived, other than a contemporary artist's sketch. The Pratt tricycle later was shown to the public in New York's Central Park and Atlantic City. Mr. Pratt was negotiating for the licensing of one of his patents when he died in Boston in 1915 at the age of 75. Found in his room at the Hoffman House with an illuminating gas jet half turned on, his death was ruled accidental.

Although Pratt's tricycle snatched a record from the Morrison carriage, William Morrison had much to be proud of in his invention. Compared to Pratt's comparatively simple tricycle, Morrison's carriage was a behemoth, capable of seating more than a half-dozen persons comfortably. But given the primitive storage batteries of the day, it is difficult to believe the claim it could operate for 13 consecutive hours at an average speed of 14 mph.

Neither Pratt nor Morrison, both professional inventors, ever bothered to patent their vehicles. Morrison was more interested in royalties from the storage batteries he had vented than in automobiles. A total of 88 patents, mostly for storage batteries and processes for their manufacture made him wealthy. He is reputed to have always carried large sums of money with him in a black leather satchel. In 1907 he told a reporter from the Des Moines Register contemptuously, "I wouldn't give you ten cents for an automobile for my own use."

The sale of his patent rights often took inventor Morrison to Chicago, where he became associated with Harold Sturges. More promoter than entrepreneur, Sturges took over Morrison's carriage and used it to promote the newly formed American Storage Battery Company's products. In 1893 he displayed Morrison's carriage in the company's battery exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This perhaps explains why it was shown in the exposition's Electricity Building and not in the Transportation Building.

Racing to Promote a Newspaper
Two years later, Sturges entered the Morrison electric carriage--now prominently bearing his name and not the inventor's--in America's first automobile race sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald. Publisher Herman H. Kohlsaat envisioned the race as a gigantic publicity stunt and circulation booster for his newspaper. Originally scheduled to cover the 92 miles from Chicago and Waukegan and return, the course was reduced to the 54.36-mile round trip between Chicago and Evanston, as measured precisely by Lt. Samuel Rodman, an official umpire. The race was run Thanksgiving Day, November 28th.

Winner of the Times-Herald race was J. Frank Duryea, whose two-cylinder gasoline-driven vehicle finished in seven hours, beating three Benz machines imported from Germany. Duryea and his brother, bicycle mechanics in Springfield, Mass., capitalized on this victory. They made the first sale of an American automobile in February 1896 and produced a dozen more vehicles of the same design later that year. This was the first time more than one car of the same design was manufactured in the United States, and marked the beginning of the American automobile industry.

That any car finished at all was noteworthy. An early winter storm left roads treacherously covered with snow and ice on the area just before the race began. The performance of the two electric entries--the Morris and Salom Electrobat, which had been demonstrated on the streets of Philadelphia the year before, and the Sturges, née Morrison--did not bode well for electrics. The Sturges dropped out early, its motor overheating and its batteries nearly exhausted. After two short stops to replenish batteries with spares preplaced along the course, Morris and Salom were concerned about their vehicle's ability to complete the course after having covered only 11 miles. The judges awarded them a gold medal for excellence in design.

A race from New York City to Irvington, N.Y., sponsored by Cosmopolitan Magazine in the spring of 1896 confirmed the superiority of the Duryea car. Despite the $3,000 first prize, only five vehicles entered--four Duryeas and a lone German Benz. Three of the Duryeas managed to finish the race.

Messrs. Morris and Salom, builders of the Electrobat, returned to Philadelphia. Sensing that a market existed, they brought out a series of electric cars of increasing sophistication. Doubts arose, however, about the wisdom of entrusting operation of their experimental vehicles to untrained operators. Instead, they decided to offer taxi service in New York City using a fleet of electric Hansom cabs.

The cab service of Morris and Salom's Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which was probably undercapitalized, soon attracted the attention of wealthy transportation magnate William C. Whitney and financier P.A.B. Widener. Whitney's Metropolitan Traction Company controlled nearly every streetcar line in Manhattan. Envisioning electric cab franchises in major American cities, he acquired the Electric Vehicle Company, successor to Morris and Salom's initial venture Seeking a large manufacturing source, Whitney arranged with Col. Albert A. Pope's Hartford carriage manufacturing company to build electric taxis, creating a massive holding company with an inflated capitalization of $3 million.

Newspapers called it the Lead Cab Trust. The magazine Horseless Age attacked the Whitney syndicate as "loud-lunged, brazen-throated hucksters" intent only on profiting from "stock-jobbing schemes." After EVC took over cab operation in New York City, Scientific American commented in its January 1899 issue: "The electric cabs of New York are standing the test of winter work and, during the recent snowstorms, they ran under conditions which discouraged even the horse cabs."

But proliferation of electric cabs in the city also brought problems. Arthur Smith, one of the drivers (they were actually called "motor men") of Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) cabs on New York streets, has his name forever inscribed in the record books. On September 13, 1899, the hansom cab driven by Mr. Smith knocked down and ran over 68-year-old real estate broker Henry H. Bliss as he alighted from a trolley car at 74th Street and Central Park West. Mr. Bliss was dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. The public began to perceive that the automobile, widely advertised as a blessing, also could be a killer. Newspaper stories told of drivers on city streets being pelted with stones.

Five months earlier, Jacob German, 26, operator of EVC cab number 1565, was arrested for driving at the "breakneck" speed of 12 mph on Lexington Avenue. Regulations then limited the speed of motor vehicles to 8 mph on city streets and 4 mph around corners. Mr. German sent the night in the station house, the first person ever arrested for speeding.

The Lead Cab Trust's plans for a fleet of 12,000 vehicles and a $200-million capitalization were torpedoed by the poor performance of its electric cabs and by financial shenanigans. Too-frequent recycling of cab batteries shortened their lives. Revelations about fiscal manipulation and a $2-million loan to a clerk only added to its woes. Eventually, the EVC returned to electric car manufacturing. Overcapitalized at $20 million, it limped along, finally going into receivership in the financial crisis of 1907.

Land Speed Records
Auto racing became a crucible for better design and improved technology. In a tradition that would persist right up to the present, early racing car drivers became folk heroes. Two of the best known were the French Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, who sported a long, thin, waxed moustache with turned-up ends, and red-bearded redheaded Belgian, Camille Jenatzy. Racing fans dubbed him the "Red Devil."

In 1898 a French automobile magazine organized a unique contest--a hill climb--designed to test the capabilities of gasoline, steam and electric vehicles. Although the roads were bad because of heavy rains, 57 competitors turned up at the little town of Chanteloup, near Paris, and a surprising 52 completed the climb.

The fastest time for the 1,800 meters (3 minutes 52 seconds) belonged to the only electric vehicle entered--a 3,960-pound "dog cart." Driving the heaviest vehicle in the race, Jenatzy made the climb at an average speed of 17 mph, easily beating a two-cylinder Bollee gasoline-powered tricycle, whose passenger perched precariously on the exposed front seat like a kind of human bumper. Yet when electric automobiles became popular, their poor hill-climbing ability was always the subject of jokes.

This event was followed by a hotly fought series of races pitting the two archrivals. The city fathers of Paris had lately become concerned over the growing number of contests on city streets between owners of automobiles. The site selected was the little town of Achères, located in a loop of the River Seine, northwest of Paris. Until then the town's only claim to fame had been as the place where the waters from the famous sewers of Paris were treated.

The count led off by winning the first speed trials on December 18, 1898, on a Jeantaud electric at an average speed of 39.245 mph. His record would stand for less than a month. On January 17, 1899, Jenatzy posted a speed of 41.425 mph, upping the count's earlier record by two miles per hour.

On his next run, Chasseloup-Laubat recorded 43.69 mph--a speed that would have been better had his car's motor not burned out 200 yards from the finish line. A rematch was put off until March 4th. This time the Count pushed his speed to 57.65 mph. By then all of France was following the contest in the newspapers with as much interest as bicycling's Tour de France.

Jenatzy determined to beat the Count's performance. He constructed an unusual vehicle--the first true racing car ever built--incorporating new and unusual features, including a separate motor on each of the two rear driving wheels. Streamlined and cigar-shaped, the body was so crammed with batteries only the driver's feet would fit in the cockpit. The frame was covered with sheets of partinium, a lightweight alloy of aluminum and tungsten, and painted blue.

Steering was by a hand-cranked wheel. To epitomize his determination to beat his titled rival, Jenatzy dubbed his racer La Jamais Contente ("Never Satisfied"). He made his run for the record on April 29th. The sleek blue racer hurtled through the measured kilometer at the then astonishing speed of 65.792 mph--the first vehicle and the first human to go faster than a mile a minute. To celebrate the win, his fans covered his car with garlands of flowers.

The Count wisely abandoned the contest. His Jeantaud racer was nothing more than a standard coffin-shaped electric touring model with pointed ends to cut the wind and with beefed-up batteries and electric motor. Jenatzy's record would stand for almost three years.

On April 13, 1902, Léon Serpollet, holder of French driving license No. 1, took the record. Using the oil-fired flash boiler he had perfected, Serpollet guided his steam racer (called "The Easter Egg" because of its rounded shape) over the course at a speed of 75.065 mph. Less than four months later, wealthy American W.K. Vanderbilt Jr., in a four-cylinder, gasoline-powered French-built 60 hp Mors, was clocked at 76.086 mph. Electrics would never hold the land speed record again.

Meanwhile, Back in America
In the meantime, interest in electrics--and in racing--had been growing in the United States. In 1896, Narragansett Park in Cranston, R.I., became the site of the first closed-circuit dirt track races to be held anywhere, a feature of the 76th annual Rhode Island State Fair. Eight vehicles were entered. After three of five scheduled five-mile heats, the electrics of A.L. Riker and Morris and Salom had finished first and second. Bad weather forced cancellation of the remaining heats.

Andrew Lawrence Riker, who had originally founded the Riker Electric Company to build electric fans and industrial motors, also won the first race staged by the newly formed Automobile Club of America. Held on April 14, 1900, the 50-mile, point-to-point contest covered a course from Springfield to Babylon and return over Long Island's Merrick Road, then considered the finest highway in the East.
Riker, the lone electric entrant, won the race in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 30 seconds, with steam and gasoline cars following in that order. One winning time in this race--not carried on the record books, however--was the showing made by C.H. Tangeman on his gasoline-powered De Dion French tricycle. Although not officially entered, Mr. Tangeman wheeled his vehicle into line with the starters and was off with the starter's gun. He "beat" Riker, the official winner, by five minutes on the home stretch back to Springfield. Along a two-mile stretch of Coney Island Boulevard in Brooklyn on November 16, 1901, in a race against the clock the same A.L. Riker, set an American mile record for electrics of 63 seconds (57.1 mph).

To reduce weight, Riker had stripped his car ruthlessly. Only the frame, running gear, motor and batteries remained. He later told a reporter confidently that with other changes he was sure he could clip another eight seconds off his time.

Walter Baker's Torpedo
A beautiful Memorial Day weekend in 1902 was the coup de grâce for racing on public roads. Walter C. Baker, 34-year-old engineering graduate of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, had been building electric vehicles for several years. He unveiled an electric racer of unusual design dubbed the "Road Torpedo."

Baker mounted a torpedo-shaped frame of wood and angle iron on 36-inch wire wheels with wooden rims and three-inch pneumatic tires. The body was covered with oilcloth, painted black, as were the wheel disks. One magazine described it as resembling "a yacht hull upside down." Two seats were provided, and the occupants peered out through a tiny isinglass window.

Two chains to spring-mounted sprockets on the rear wheels linked a single motor behind the driver and his riding mechanic. Forty cells of lightweight lead-acid batteries, positioned front and rear, furnished power. The vehicle was steered by a small (seven-inch) wheel connected to a primitive cable and drum system that turned the front wheels.

The occasion was the Automobile Club of America's speed trials along South Shore Boulevard in Staten Island, the bucolic borough merged into New York City only four years before. The afternoon started auspiciously. The crowd gawked at the two gasoline vehicles on exhibit. One was Henri Fournier's racer, which had won the 744-mile Paris to Berlin Race. The second was the 35-hp Daimler of Mrs. Howard Gould, Jay Gould's daughter-in-law. After her liveried chauffeur took the car over the course, he haughtily announced that the time of 57.6 seconds for the kilometer was "not typical of the machine's performance."

Two records were set before Baker's electric racer made its appearance: for motorcycles (one mile in 70.4 seconds) and steam automobiles (one mile in 72 seconds). After the gasoline and steam trials, the ominous-looking black torpedo was trundled out. Baker and his mechanic, who would call out the tachometer readings, strapped themselves into the cockpit. They were confident they would cover a mile in 40 seconds and shatter both the mile record set by Fournier the year before at Coney Island and Serpollet's kilometer record made at Nice little more than a month earlier.

Baker guided the car carefully up to the starting line. A gay holiday crowd edged forward to get a better view of the curious vehicle, forming a veritable human funnel into the mouth of which Baker pointed the vehicle. The black racer accelerated rapidly down South Shore Boulevard. As the vehicle negotiated a gentle curve in the road it swerved toward the inside of the curve. Baker overcorrected and the car now crossed the road again, this time heading for the hospital tent.

Swaying and rocking, the big machine headed toward an intersection known as Red Lane, where trolley tracks marked the three-quarter point of the measured mile, almost to the inch. When it struck the tracks, the car's wheels leaped into the air--"revolving so rapidly they fairly sang," was the way one observer put it later. The thumping crash as the wheels returned to the road was too much for the rim of the right rear wheel. It buckled and collapsed.

The racer wobbled crazily, veering to the right toward the crowd lining the road. The mechanic immediately cut the power, and Baker threw on the brakes on the left side, while continuing to fight the steering wheel. He then set the brakes on the opposite side, but the car--now virtually unmanageable--began to spin around. With a sickening crunch of metal and wood on flesh and bone, the black racer hurtled into the paralyzed spectators.

Miraculously, Baker and his mechanic were uninjured, probably because of their primitive seat belts. They suffered their worst injuries at the hands of spectators who beat on the wreckage with rocks--not out of rage, but in an unnecessarily hurried attempt to free the racer's occupants.

A hospital tent had been set up along the course--almost at the very scene of the accident, as it turned out. Victims among the spectators were quickly brought there. Dead was Andrew Featherston, 63, a Civil War veteran who had survived the infamous Andersonville prison and later escaped from Libby Prison to rejoin his regiment and fight at Antietam. Upwards of ten people were injured.

Newspaper editorial writers had a field day. Hearst's New York American & Journal described the Baker racer as "a submarine destroyer." The New York Herald called it "an automobile freak," and The New York Tribune, "a freak racer."

Police arrested the racer's two occupants, who were held in $15,00 bail. On the following day, another victim, John T. Bogart, 68, died of his injuries. The Herald pointed out ominously that the Automobile Club of America had arranged for ambulances to be present at the speed trials, "as if they expected accidents to occur." Other newspapers suggested that the smallness of the steering wheel on the Baker racer was a factor. When a grand jury did not return an indictment, the furor gradually died down. The Automobile Club of America prohibited speed contests on public highways.

Baker's Torpedo racer was salvaged and rebuilt. By September of 1902 it participated in exhibition races at the Glenville track in Cleveland. That winter he completed a smaller version he called "The Torpedo Kid." Both the Torpedo (said to be able to reach 132 mph) and the Torpedo Kid were sent on a world tour. Their fate remains unknown.

The electric vehicle held much promise at the turn of the last century. It was the automobile of choice of many. Women passengers and the occasional woman driver preferred it to the gasoline vehicle's bone-shaking vibrations, noxious fumes and frequent leakage of oil and fuel.

Col. Albert A. Pope, who had made a fortune manufacturing bicycles in Hartford, Ct., before turning to electric vehicles, scoffed at gasoline automobiles. "You'll never get people to sit over an explosion," he predicted. Within a decade, the overwhelming popularity of gasoline vehicles caused the good Colonel to regret his words--and to begin manufacturing gas-powered cars.

Editor's Note: Look for the second and final part of this two-part series, "The Fall and Resurrection of the Electric Automobile," to appear next week.

Labels: , ,

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

Comments: Post a Comment | Postscripts Homepage

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?