Edison, Ford, And The Long Race

The scene is New York City, August 1896. The executives of the Edison Illuminating Companies are meeting for their annual convention. The guest of honor is the great inventor himself — Thomas Edison, 49 years old and at the height of his fame.

Also at the table is the 33-year-old chief engineer from the Detroit Edison Company, Henry Ford. The conversation turns to the prospect of building an electric-battery powered car. Ford says he’s just built a car himself, but instead of using a battery, his car runs on gasoline.

Henry Ford and Thomas Edison
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
Image is from the Library of Congress.

“Edison says, ‘That’s a great idea, using that hydrocarbon,’ and Ford gets launched on what becomes the Model T. Edison [later] decides that actually it’d be better to have an electric car, spends all this money on it and all this time, and for a while there’s a real horserace between the electric car and the gasoline-powered car. Then around 1910, Ford brings out the Model T. Race over.”

A hundred years, multiple oil shocks and major shifts in state and federal policy later, the electric car is finally getting a rematch.

The Quest book coverDaniel Yergin is the author of The Prize and The Quest. He’s speaking Thursday at the World Affairs Council of Houston and Monday at the University of Houston’s Michael J. Cemo Hall.  For more information, visit kuhf.org/energyexchange.

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