Edison and the Electric Car

Version 4.1


Thomas Alva Edison was not a principal designer or maker of electric cars, but he owned many of them, and influenced their development. He was an investor in the Lansden Company of Newark New Jersey, a moderately successful electric truck company that made a runabout for a couple of years. Edison was involved from the founding in 1904, and obtained a controlling interest in 1908. The principal designer, John Lansden Jr., left for the General Motors truck division in 1911, and Edison sold the company in January of 1912.


Edison had an electric railroad built at Menlo Park in the spring of 1880, eventually running almost three miles from the machine shop to his fishing hole, but was 53 before he got his first automobile of any type. Edison did not care to drive, and generally left driving to an employee, son, or his second wife Mina.


Edison spent a lot of time shuffling through exhibits at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he saw the 1890 Morrison electric wagon, and probably took a ride. He got into an argument over its viability with American Battery Vice President Harold Sturges, who was giving demonstrations. According to Sturges: Edison said, “As it looks at the present, it would seem more likely that horseless carriages will be run by a gasoline or naphtha motor of some kind. It is quite possible, however, that an electric storage battery will be discovered which will prove more economical, but at present the gasoline or naphtha motor looks more promising. It is only a question of a short time when the carriages and trucks in every large city will be run with motors.” During The annual meeting of the Edison Illuminating Companies at the Oriental Hotel near Coney Island, New York in 1896, he repeated similar sentiments to Henry Ford, who was working as an engineer at Detroit Edison. Edison spent the next fourteen years, and a million and a half dollars of his personal fortune, developing such a battery.


In 1895, Edison had his staff build an electric tricycle, which now resides in the Ford collection. In 1897, he got a ride in a Columbia Mk III electric automobile, when William G. Bee – who joined the Edison Battery Company as sales manager in 1903 - took him for a spin at the Pope Factory in Hartford Connecticut. He could have obtained one at that time, but Hiram P. Maxim designed it, and Edison was not fond of his father, Hiram Stevens Maxim, one of many he had bitter patent fights with over the incandescent light bulb. In 1900 he bought the second production Baker runabout made. The first one was kept as a factory car.


Production of his Nickel-Iron battery, started very slowly in 1901, for testing purposes, with a full week’s production only enough for one car. Manufacturing and design was sorted out well enough to began sales in early 1903, and was running at capacity by early 1904. This first version of his battery became an embarrassing failure. The soldered seams leaked, and electrical performance degraded with use. Sales were halted in November of 1904 and he withdrew it from the market.


The Edison Battery was not just one invention; it was the product of a few dozen small inventions needed to make the concept live up to most of Edison’s promises.


By 1906 he had solved the leakage problem with seams that were both welded, and then sealed, with high-temperature-bonded nickel plating. He found a solution for the performance problem by alloying the nickel with cobalt. However, cobalt was expensive, and supplies were limited. Even after going into the cobalt mining business himself, costs were too high to make a profit, so he quietly produced enough of these improved cells to keep the electric truck fleet clients happy, and for the few Lansden runabouts.


The “perfected” version, introduced in 1910, had completely redesigned positive plates, with nickel flakes tightly tamped into nickel-plated steel tubes. It was cobalt free, and capacity increased as much as 30% with use. The battery was nearly impervious to both electrical and mechanical insult. It was good enough to return his investment – which was paid off in 1913 - but neither cheap enough, nor efficient enough, to save the electric car.


Between 1901 and 1904 the battery was tested in two Bakers, a Studebaker and a 1904 Waverley model 29 Physician’s Road Wagon owned by a director of the battery company. Around 1905 he got a newer Studebaker. A 1910 ad claimed he had two Waverleys at his estate. He seems to have gotten into a heated dispute with the Waverley Company over the voracity of his battery claims, as Edison did not wish to deal with Waverley when he re-introduced his battery in 1910.


Thomas A. Edison and William C. Anderson, maker of the Detroit Electric, both had roots in Port Huron Michigan. They were friends, and it was Anderson who re-introduced Edison to Henry Ford.   


All nine models of 1910 Detroit Electrics were available with “Edison hoods” to accommodate an Edison nickel-iron battery set. Although individual Edison cells were similar in size to the standard lead-acid cells of that time, they needed airflow space between cells for heat dissipation, and only produced an average 1.2 Volts (under load) whereas a lead-acid cell put out an average 1.9 Volts. More cells were required, making them bulkier than a lead-acid battery set of similar voltage. The first Edison equipped Detroit Electric shipped to a customer was a model D Coupé, delivered to a Milwaukee coal magnate in late November of 1909.


Colonel E. W. M. Bailey loaned a Bailey Victoria called “Maud” (now at the Frick Museum), for tests and demonstration of the perfected Edison Battery. A Bailey and a Detroit Victoria were run up to Maine and back for a thorough test. Both cars completed the circuit of over a thousand miles with no major problem.


The Edison Battery also required a greater differential between the working voltage and the charging voltage to achieve a full charge, with an equalization voltage of 1.7 Volts for 1.2 out, so the highest working Voltage for an Edison battery charged by 110 Volt AC mains through a mercury vapor rectifier was 72 Volts. For a lead-acid battery it was 80-84 Volts.


Electric cars made before 1912 were usually smaller, and ran at a lower voltage to keep the battery smaller and lighter. The 1911 Detroit Electrics ran at 48 Volts, supplied by a 24-cell lead-acid, or 40-cell Edison Battery, which cost an additional $600.


Although they required a higher charging voltage offset than the lead-acid ones, if the charging system used a motor-generator set (AKA rotary converter), or a transformer from AC mains, charging voltage didn’t matter much. However, high current transformers and rotary converters were expensive. A charging system that lowered voltage by inserting resistance was cheap at first, but wasted energy and cost more over time. This, and the bigger faster cars with longer range demanded by customers, led most makers to settle on a 40-cell lead battery, or a 60-cell Edison Battery at an additional $800.


The Edison Battery for the later cars was not much larger, as the number of cells did not bring it up to an equivalent operating voltage. To keep performance similar, many of the later “Edison type” cars used motors with a lower voltage rating.


It was claimed that the new 225-Ampere Hour A-6 battery would increase in capacity by an additional 30% over time, and weighed 50% less than lead-acid batteries of the same capacity, or 35% less than the standard 168-Ah lead-acid battery.


“The lead-acid battery would retain about 85% of the charging input whereas an Edison Battery only retained 70% of the potential. An Edison battery under rapid charge also out gassed more hydrogen and oxygen, so charging required good ventilation.”

(Hay, Secrets of the Submarine, 1917)


On May 23, 1910, Edison wrote to William C. Anderson:


“My dear Anderson:

Your letter of March 23rd received. Just wait two or three weeks. I have taken hold of the business myself. There will be a hot time in the electric vehicle business in the advertising line in the next two months, just watch.


Go ahead and sell all you can and watch the fun coming. That Waverly (sic) Company will set up and take notice.


Under no circumstances must you fail to have that test run vehicle here by the first of June; as I will be ready for it.


Yours very Truly, Thomas A Edison”


A Detroit Electric model A Victoria was shipped to the Edison Storage Battery branch in New York City, May 26, 1910. That early chain-drive model was resold by Anderson the following March, and in June of 1911, the Edison Storage Battery Company received an all blue Detroit Electric Model 15 Victoria with the new shaft drive system. It must have been well received as it was personally registered to Thomas Edison at his estate by 1915, where it still resides. Fred Ott, one of Edison’s long time associates, liked it so much he bought an all green one a year later.


On October 14, 1911, Edison wrote to Anderson confirming exclusive use of the new battery for pleasure cars in 1912. There were exceptions for Bailey and Healey. The letter guaranteed the battery would keep its rated capacity for four years, and suggested that Anderson guarantee it for five. The battery was expensive to manufacture and cost an additional $600-$800 more than a lead-acid battery, depending on the number of cells.  In comparison, a brand new 1913 Model T Ford runabout was $525. “Exclusive” did not mean that much, as other makes simply obtained the batteries from wholesalers, at a slightly higher price. Perhaps the most important downside of the Edison Ni-Fe cell was that it would not function well at much below 40º F, yielding only 40% of capacity at 35º F, a lead-acid cell still maintained 54% of its capacity at 0º F. This, and relatively limited maximum current output, made it much less desirable as a starting battery for a gasoline car, although the company worked to develop that market. Fleet operators reported that in freezing weather the trucks were slow for the first half hour of operation, but perked up as discharge heated the cells. Charging the battery just before the use cycle mitigated the problem.


In December of 1913 Henry Ford sent the Edisons a 1914 Model 47 Detroit Electric Brougham as a Christmas present. It was delivered to them in New Jersey with an Edison battery, but without a motor (the only car shipped without a motor that I have noticed in the ledgers). He also bought the same model for Mrs. Ford, her fourth Detroit Electric in eight years. Anderson hired famed photographer Nathan Lazernick to make portraits of Edison, Ford, and Charles Proteus Steinmetz with their new cars, and Anderson featured them in a series of advertisements.


According to a Detroit Electric Car ad in the April 2nd, 1914 Motor World: “Mr. Edison has owned three Detroit Electrics; and these are the only electric cars he has ever owned since we placed our cars on the market” (late 1907). There was also a Lansden truck registered to Edison in 1914.


A 1910 Model D inside drive Coupé - with two previous owners - was shipped to the battery factory in mid-June of 1914, with a Sangamo Ampere-hour meter added to facilitate testing.


While working on the Naval Consulting Board in Washington DC from 1916 to 1919, Edison was chauffeured about in a very fancy 1913 Rauch & Lang TC-3 outside-drive Town Car, apparently gifted by a Maryland dowager. This car also became part of the Ford collection, later sold on. Edison consulted on the design of two Ford electric car prototypes in 1914.


Many of the Edison companies' executives had electric vehicles, including five Baileys, Detroits, a Columbia, and a few Studebakers. The phonograph works had a pair of Studebakers.


The Edison stable was not limited to electric vehicles; over the years he also had a matched pair of 1905 White steamers for touring, a 1912 gasoline Simplex, and a Model T Ford, registered to Theodore Edison.


The Edison Battery had limited success in pleasure cars. The peak year in Detroit Electrics was 1912 when 334 of the cars were thus equipped, compared with 978 overall sales. In 1913 the sales plummeted to 5%, leveling of to 3.9% in 1914.  They remained popular in delivery truck fleets through the 1920’s. Edison cells were often the battery of choice for backup service, where low maintenance, and long reliable service was the priority. In cold climates where secondary cells were prone to highly degraded performance, or case rupture, the fairly constant charge/discharge cycles kept them warm, such as railroad car lighting and warning signals.