early electric car
Thomas Edison with an electric car in 1913, (courtesy of the National
Museum of American History)

All-electric cars are in the news. The latest is familiar and pricey—the battery packs are prohibitively expensive, as reported in today’s Wall Street Journal. (For other recent summaries of the new push for electric-vehicle commercialization, see here and here).

Electric vehicles are all about hype, hope, and government largesse. But what has really changed in more of a century of trial and toil?

Consider this exchange in 1896 between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford where the elder told the aspirant to forget batteries and stick with the internal combustion engine (gasoline) for his horseless carriage.

Here is the conversation as recounted by Samuel Insull in his 1934 autobiography (full cite at end)

“He asked me no end of details,” to use Mr. Ford’s own language, “and I sketched everything for him; for I have always found that I could convey an idea quicker by sketching than by just describing it.” When the conversation ended, Mr. Edison brought his fist down on the table with a bang, and said:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.

Later on Mr. Ford wrote:

That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was, but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me a complete approval. The man who knew most about electricity in the world had said that for the purpose my gas motor was better than any electric motor could be—it could go long distances, he said, and there would be stations to supply the cars with hydro-carbon. That was the first time I ever heard this term for liquid fuel. And this at a time when all the electrical engineers took it as an established fact that there could be nothing new and worthwhile that did not run by electricity. It was to be the universal power.

Who is going to bang President Obama’s table given his multi-billion-dollar taxpayer commitment to all-electric cars? Who in the Obama Administration has the courage to lecture the president about energy density (as explained by Robert Bryce in his excellent new book, Power Hungry) realities between energies and technologies?

Without an appreciation for history and understanding of Energy 101, the government will continue to throw bad money after bad when it comes to all-electric vehicles.


Samuel Insull, The Memoirs of Samuel Insull (Polo, Ill: Transportation Trails, 1934, 1992, pp. 142–43.

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