Thomas Edison: Unacknowledged Driver of Today’s Electric Vehicles

Tim Nostrand | December 26, 2019 | Winter 2019
A spark of intuition while waiting for the ferry back to Jersey City led Edison to develop and refine his nickel-iron battery, a rechargeable power source that was strong, robust and lightweight
Locomobile, in Glenmont garage. Originally steam-powered, Edison modified this early model made by the Connecticut-based Locomobile Co. to test his storage batteries.

We’ll be on winter hiatus starting Dec. 23. While we’re recharging our batteries, we’ll be posting a series of stories about New Jersey history. We’ll be back delivering our unique coverage of politics and public policy on Jan. 2. Have a great holiday and a happy and safe New Year.

Within an upscale, gated community in central Essex County stands an icon of the modern age — a garage housing electric vehicles and a charging station, owned by a wealthy proponent of their virtue as a clean mode of transportation.

They’re not Teslas, or Chevy Volts, or any of the other EVs on the market today. They have names like Detroit Electric and Locomobile. And their owner was Thomas Alva Edison, who’s been dead for nearly 90 years.

America’s most famous inventor is best known for his work perfecting technologies behind the light bulb, the phonograph and motion pictures. A less familiar part of his biography, though, is that he spent a good deal of his storied life championing electricity as the best power option for a nation about to lovingly embrace the automobile.

100 years of internal combustion

But the garage — on the grounds of Glenmont, his long-time residence — and much of the neighboring laboratory and industrial complex in West Orange that gave birth to Edison’s creations, can also be viewed as a monument to a missed opportunity. It’s only now, after a century of life with the internal-combustion engine and the climate-changing consequences of gasoline and other fossil fuels, that the electric-vehicle industry is again gaining traction, leaving government leaders scrambling to build the infrastructure needed to sustain it.

Edison early on recognized the looming significance of self-powered vehicles, famously telling a magazine interviewer in 1895 — the year before Henry Ford built his Quadricycle — that “automobiles are going to be the wave of the future.”

Storage batteries made by Edison in the Glenmont garage.
Storage batteries made by Edison in the Glenmont garage

His stake in the game would not be the vehicles themselves, but the technology he saw as the best way to propel them — a rechargeable electric power source strong enough to move vehicle, cargo and occupants over significant distances and robust enough to be reliable under varying conditions.

In the nearly 800-page “Edison,” published posthumously this year, biographer Edmund Morris recounts a story providing a glimpse into the workings of the inventor’s mind. In 1900, Edison was standing in lower Manhattan waiting for a ferry back to Jersey City, jotting down ideas in his notebook as he took in the chaotic, foul-smelling scene of a commercial neighborhood overrun with horse-drawn carts.

“Limited loads. Congestion. Resulting delay and expense therefrom …”

“Solution: — Electrically driven trucks, covering one-half the street area, having twice the speed, with two or three times the carrying capacity … Development necessary: — Running gear — easy. Motor driver — easy. Control—simple. Battery—(?)”

Competing technologies

At the time, other propulsion technologies were competing to rule the emerging market in self-driving vehicles, including steam. Not surprisingly, the founder of the Edison Electric Light Co. favored electricity. And his answer to his own scribbled question was a device called the storage battery.  Like much of Edison’s work, it wasn’t his invention, but he would significantly improve it.

The favored technology for early electric vehicles was the lead-acid battery, which while powerful was so heavy that much of its output was spent moving itself around. Edison’s alternative was an “alkaline” battery — a sleek rectangular box encasing much lighter nickel and iron in just the right proportion and configuration to generate a steady stream of electric power courtesy of galvanism.

Electric charging station
Electric charging station in Edison’s garage on the Glenmont grounds

Edison would devote much of the next decade to developing and refining his battery, building a factory to churn out units and drive down costs through economies of scale. The building still stands on Main Street in West Orange — its gutted hulk recently renovated and converted into apartments.

Ultimately, though, his efforts to grab a piece of the automobile market were unsuccessful. By the time Edison’s company was producing commercially viable batteries, electric vehicles had started to lose ground to cars with internal-combustion engines. That was largely a result of the Model T and of Henry Ford honing mass-production techniques sufficiently to sell it at an affordable price. But there also was the impact of the pivotal event in early 20th century.

Another casualty of World War I

“The key part of the story is actually WW I,” said Paul Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University. “As the country gears up for war production, electrics make no sense at all. Because if you are using an automobile under wartime conditions, there were no charging stations …  And so electrics are completely the wrong way to go.”

The wholesale switch to the internal-combustion engine is especially felt in truck manufacturing; before the war battery-powered vehicles had been a mainstay, and a large part of Edison’s market.

“That really puts the final nail in the coffin of electric automobiles,” said Israel, the author of “Edison: A Life of Invention,” published in 1998.

Just before the war, Edison and Ford had begun a friendship, and for a while Edison tried unsuccessfully to adapt his battery for electric starters on Model Ts, which in their initial incarnation had come equipped only with a famously balky, and at times dangerous, hand crank to get the engine running .

“Ironically, the major use of batteries in automobiles is as a starting engine,” Israel said. “And the lead-acid batteries are actually better for that quick charge than the alkaline battery that Edison develops.”

Ever resourceful, Edison shifted his focus. His nickel-iron battery would become a durable mainstay in other industries, especially mining and rail transportation, and rank among his most profitable endeavors.

The ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’

Edison’s notebook is just one of the countless documents and papers that are now maintained at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park on Main Street in West Orange. His library, chemical lab, machine shop and other surviving buildings are a regular stop for history buffs and tourists.

Leonard DeGraaf is the archivist for the trove, which also forms the main component of the Edison Papers at Rutgers. He said Morris spent three years tapping the library’s resources for his book.

The chemistry laboratory in the National Historic Park
The chemistry laboratory in the National Historic Park; sitting on top of the workbench to the left is one of Edison’s nickel-iron storage batteries.

According to DeGraaf, Edison’s talent for self-promotion was a big component of what set him apart. Being able to articulate a vision of the future and how what you are creating will transform it was a necessary part of the creative process, especially for someone who needed outside money to make things happen.

“Innovation and invention are very risky activity, particularly for investors,” explained DeGraaf. “A lot of what Edison was trying to do … creating this image of himself as the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ … was trying to display a level of confidence that would support what he was trying to do. Investors want to protect their investments. They want to be reasonably certain they are going to see some return out of it.”

That entrepreneurial instinct also helps establish buy-in on a broader scale, said DeGraaf, the author of “Edison and the Rise of Innovation.”

“A lot of people think that invention is just solving a technical problem,” he added. “But there’s a social aspect of it as well, in that you have to get society to come along with you, to accept your idea. If society doesn’t adopt the technology, it’s not going anywhere.”

Edison with electric vehicleCredit: Thomas Edison National Historic Park
Edison with electric vehicle, with hood open showing how his batteries were placed

Ultimately, Edison’s work with electric cars was not one of his noteworthy successes. But his battery is nevertheless a key part of the history that leads to Elon Musk, who was quoted in 2008 saying Edison had been even more of a role model than Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American electrical engineer for whom Musk’s cars are named.

“Over the more than a century from the time that Edison started working on it, there’s been a lot better understanding of battery technology,” said Israel. “A century worth of research that has certainly improved the state of battery technology so we can now begin to talk in more clear ways about how this can be a commercial technology.”

Also of note: Ford currently has a team working to bring a new generation of electric vehicles to market — including a fast, Mustang-inspired model. The name of the 55-person work group is Team Edison.

Tim Nostrand is an editor for NJ Spotlight who has spent his entire career as a New Jersey journalist. For much of that time, he was the investigations and projects editor at the Bergen Record, where reporting teams he led were a Pulitzer finalist and an IRE Award winner.