“Thomas Edison poses with his first electric car
the Edison Baker, and one of its batteries, 1895”

The battery invented 120 years before its time
by Allison Hirschlag  /  23rd February 2021

“Traveling down a gravelly road in West Orange, New Jersey, an electric car sped by pedestrians, some clearly surprised by the vehicle’s roomy interior. It travelled at twice the speed of the more conventional vehicles it overtook, stirring up dust that perhaps tickled the noses of the horses pulling carriages steadily along the street. It was the early 1900s, and the driver of this particular car was Thomas Edison.

“Waldemar Jungner i elbilen som körde runt i Stockholm i 12 timmar år 1900”

While electric cars weren’t a novelty in the neighborhood, most of them relied on heavy and cumbersome lead-acid batteries. Edison had outfitted his car with a new type of battery that he hoped would soon be powering vehicles throughout the country: a nickel-iron battery. Building on the work of the Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner, who first patented a nickel-iron battery in 1899, Edison sought to refine the battery for use in automobiles.

Gustave Trouvé's tricycle (1881), world's first electric car.
“Gustave Trouvé’s tricycle (1881), world’s first electric car”

Edison claimed the nickel-iron battery was incredibly resilient, and could be charged twice as fast as lead-acid batteries. He even had a deal in place with Ford Motors to produce this purportedly more efficient electric vehicle. But the nickel-iron battery did have some kinks to work out. It was larger than the more widely used lead-acid batteries, and more expensive. Also, when it was being charged, it would release hydrogen, which was considered a nuisance and could be dangerous.

Unfortunately, by the time Edison had a more refined prototype, electric vehicles were on the way out in favour of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles that could go longer distances before needing to refuel or recharge. Edison’s deal with Ford Motors fell by the wayside, though his battery continued to be used in certain niches such as railroad signalling, where its bulky size was not a hindrance. But more than a century later, engineers would rediscover the nickel-iron battery as something of a diamond in the rough.

Now it is being investigated as an answer to an enduring challenge for renewable energy: smoothing out the intermittent nature of clean energy sources like wind and solar. And hydrogen, once considered a worrisome byproduct, could turn out to be one of the most useful things about these batteries. Speeding forward to the mid 2010s, a research team at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands happened upon a use for the nickel-iron battery based on the hydrogen produced. When electricity passes through the battery as it’s being recharged, it undergoes a chemical reaction that releases hydrogen and oxygen.

The team recognised the reaction as reminiscent of the one used to release hydrogen from water, known as electrolysis. “It looked to me like the chemistry was the same,” says Fokko Mulder, leader of the Delft University research team. This water-splitting reaction is one way hydrogen is produced for use as a fuel – and an entirely clean fuel too, provided the energy used to drive the reaction is from a renewable source.

While Mulder and his team knew that the nickel-iron battery’s electrodes were capable of splitting water, they were surprised to see that the electrodes started to have a higher energy storage than before hydrogen was being produced. In other words, it became a better battery when it was used as an electrolyser too. They were also surprised to see how well the electrodes held up to the electrolysis, which can excessively tax and degrade more traditional batteries. “And, of course, we were rather content that the energy efficiency appeared to be good during all this,” says Mulder, reaching levels of 80-90%.

“Green: possible output of solar and wind power on a large scale grid with ~30% renewable energy use. Blue: possible electricity use pattern in a progressively electrified society. Black: short term day/night storage. Red: long term seasonal storage”

Mulder dubbed their creation the “battolyser”, and they hope their discovery can help solve two major challenges for renewable energy: energy storage and, when the batteries are full, production of clean fuel. “You’ll hear all these discussions about batteries on the one hand and hydrogen on the other hand,” says Mulder. “There’s always been a kind of competition between those two sets of directions, but you basically need both.”

One of the biggest challenges of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar is how unpredictable and intermittent they can be. With solar, for example, you have a surplus of energy produced during the daytime and summertime, but at night and in the winter months, the supply dwindles. Conventional batteries, such as those based on lithium, can store energy in the short-term, but when they’re fully charged they have to release any excess or they could overheat and degrade. The nickel-iron battolyser, on the other hand remains stable when fully charged, at which point it can transition to making hydrogen instead.”

“Nickel-iron batteries are resilient, being able to withstand undercharging and overcharging better than other batteries,” says John Barton, a research associate at the School of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering, Loughborough University in the UK, who also researches battolysers. “With hydrogen production, the battolyser adds multi-day and even inter-seasonal energy storage.” Besides creating hydrogen, nickel-iron batteries have other useful traits, first and foremost that they are unusually low-maintenance. They are extremely durable, as Edison proved in his early electric car, and some have been known to last upwards of 40 years.

The metals needed to make the battery – nickel and iron – are also more common than, say, cobalt which is used to make conventional batteries. This means the battolyser could have another possible role for renewable energy: helping it become more profitable. Like any other industry, renewable energy prices fluctuate based on supply and demand. On a bright, sunny day there might be an abundance of power from solar, which can lead to a glut and a dip in the price the energy can be sold for.

The battolyser, however, could help smooth out those peaks and troughs. “When electricity prices are high, then you can discharge this battery, but when the electricity price is low, you can charge the battery and make hydrogen,” says Mulder. The battolyser is not alone in this regard. More traditional alkaline electrolysers coupled with batteries can perform this function too, and are widespread in the hydrogen-producing industry. Mulder thinks the battolyser can do the same thing for less money and for longer, thanks to the durability of the system. It is something that is making the battolyser’s backers hopeful.

And while hydrogen is the direct product of the battolyser, other useful substances can be generated from it too, such as ammonia or methanol, which are typically easier to store and transport. “Having a battolyser in place, [an] ammonia plant would run more constantly and [would] need less manpower, reducing operating costs and maintenance costs, thus producing ammonia the cheapest way in a sustainable, green manner,” says Hans Vrijenhoef, chief executive of Proton Ventures, who has invested in Mulder’s battolyser.

Right now, the largest battolyser in existence is 15kW/15kWh, and has enough battery capacity and long-term hydrogen storage to power 1.5 households. A larger version of a 30kW/30kWh battolyser is in the works at the Magnum power station in Eemshaven in the Netherlands, where it will provide enough hydrogen to satisfy the needs of the power station. Once it’s undergone rigorous testing there, the aim is to scale-up further and distribute the battolyser to green energy producers, such as solar and wind farms. Ultimately, the battolyser’s proponents hope it will reach gigawatt-scale – equivalent to the power generated by around 400 utility-scale wind turbines. Though as well as scaling-up, Barton sees a role for smaller battolysers, which could help supply energy to mini-grids used by remote communities that don’t live on main power grids.

The fact that the battolyser’s electrodes are made from relatively cheap and common metals may help. And unlike lithium, nickel and iron do not create large quantities of water waste when mined, nor are they linked to significant environmental degradation. Still, both Mulder and Barton see hurdles to overcome in terms of efficiency and capacity. “The battolyser would really benefit from increased power capacity as a battery, or reduced internal resistance,” says Barton. Internal resistance is the opposition to the flow of current in a battery.

detroit electric car 1912
“Nickel Iron Battery Still Functioning after almost 100 years”

The higher the internal resistance, the lower the efficiency. Improving that is something Mulder and his team are now working on. Much of the potential of the battolyser has been hiding in plain sight, ever since Thomas Edison first began experimenting with his nickel-iron battery at the turn of the 20th Century. He may have been wrong in believing his battery would supplant the other vehicles on the road. But the nickel-iron battery may yet play a role in replacing fossil fuels more broadly, by helping hasten the transition to renewables.”

by Al Williams  /  April 8, 2021

“Excited about your new electric vehicle? Thomas Edison would be, too. He tried to produce electric vehicles for Ford around 1900. Petroleum-based vehicles dashed his dreams of the electric car, and the battery he wanted to use languished as a technological dead end. The batteries were long-lasting, sure, but they were expensive and had other problems, not the least of which was producing hydrogen gas.

“Thomas Edison with his Nickel Iron Battery in 1910”

But that battery technology is receiving renewed interest today, because some of the things that made it a bad car battery make it good for alternate energy projects. You wouldn’t think a century-old battery technology that was never very popular would make a comeback. Even 90 years after his death, Thomas Edison is still a household name. He invented — or at least popularized — quite a number of things we take for granted in the modern world.

“The car was only legally allowed to go 4 miles per hour
on country roads and 2 miles per hour on town roads.”

Apparently, he was ahead of his time in at least one area: electric vehicles. The first electric vehicle was an electric tricycle plying the streets of Paris in 1881 and Englishman Thomas Parker took an electric car into production in 1884. According to a recent BBC article, Edison and others had electric vehicles around 1900. There were even electric cabs in London and New York. But Edison’s electric car was a bit different.

“Edison and his electric car in 1913”

Most electric vehicles in those days used lead-acid batteries — a technology still with us in normal cars, although now in a more refined state. These vehicles were probably more like what we would think of today as golf carts. But Edison’s car used a nickel-iron battery that had been around since 1899, the work of Swede Ernst Waldemar Jungner, who also invented the NiCad battery. Edison had a deal in place to produce electric vehicles for Ford using the batteries.

“Elbil vid Jungnerbolaget i Stockholm”

He claimed that they were extremely resilient, lasting in some cases up to 40 years, and charged twice as fast as conventional cells of the day. They were, however, larger and more expensive. They also had an undesirable byproduct of hydrogen gas. By the time Edison was ready with his new battery, petroleum-based cars had caught on, and no electric Ford vehicles would ever issue from the deal. The Edison Storage Battery Company made these batteries up until 1972. The company passed to Exide Battery, which produced them until 1975.

“Cut away view from Edison manual”

Today, however, the battery tech is resurging. A research team at the Delft University of Technology noticed that the battery charging process was similar to breaking down water, as both processes generate hydrogen and oxygen. It turns out that using the batteries to directly electrolyze water increased the battery’s energy storage and efficiency. The hydrogen gas created as a byproduct is also usable as an energy source. The team thinks this has applications in storing intermittent power sources such as wind or solar. Storing energy in lithium-ion batteries, for example, is great until the battery is full. Then you have to disconnect to prevent overheating which will shorten the life of the cells.

“a dangerous quirk of the Edison battery has turned out to be remarkably useful”

A nickel-iron battery, however, is fine fully charged, and using this new innovation can transition to producing hydrogen gas to handle the excess energy put in. The battery can work more efficiently than a traditional electrolyzer. The only downsides are higher internal resistance than some other battery technologies and lower charge retention times. However, some of these problems have been mitigated by adding carbon.

A current prototype handles about 15 kWh, but one twice that size is under construction. They hope to eventually to scale the batteries up nearly 100 times. The batteries did not completely disappear after Edison. Their long life and tolerance of abuse such as overcharging and short circuiting have made them popular in applications where they need a long service life. Some subway trains, for example, use this type of battery. The German V2 rocket also used them.

One benefit to nickel-iron is that while they are expensive to produce, it isn’t because of rare materials. We have plenty of nickel and iron. Disposing of nickel and iron isn’t particularly problematic, either. If you want to learn more about the battery technology, there’s an entire website from the Nickel Iron Battery Association that includes a 1912 electric car that claims to have a working battery still, over 100 years later. You can also find a scan of Edison’s 1914 manual on caring for their batteries.

You can even try making your own battery at home, if you watch the video above. It makes us wonder what other old tech is sitting around waiting for some improvements and a change in conditions to make them successful? After all, if you told Edison you wanted his batteries to produce hydrogen, he’d have probably thought you were crazy. I have to admit, I sometimes thumb through old electronic magazines for inspiration.

Sometimes it is pretty indirect, but it is amazing what people were doing with what we think of now as very little. It also amazes me how many things we think of as modern were being done much earlier than you would guess. Fax machines, video, computers, and data searches all existed way before they became mainstream. Sometimes the technology just has to wait for people to catch up to it.”

Ford, Edison and the Cheap EV That Almost Was
by Dan Strohl  / June 18, 2010

“That Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were good friends late in their lives is well-known. They camped together, presented each other with lavish gifts, even owned homes adjacent to each other. Many Ford enthusiasts also know Ford, when he first drove his Quadricycle on the streets of Detroit in 1896, worked for Edison at Detroit Edison Illuminating Company. And historians know Edison, when introduced to Ford some months later and shown Ford’s plans for a gasoline automobile, encouraged the budding industrialist to pursue those plans. What is far less known is Edison and Ford worked together on an affordable electric vehicle.

This is the story of what happened and why the car never came to be. At about the time Ford Motor Co. was founded in 1903, Edison had made inroads with battery technology and started offering nickel-iron batteries for several uses, including automobiles. Later that year, he announced plans to convert four large touring cars to electric power (using his own batteries, of course), a plan that reeks of a publicity stunt to sell batteries but was enough to get him listed in the Standard Catalog. And though he prodded Ford into producing gasoline cars, he was soon denouncing them: “Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water-circulating system to get out of order — no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.”

Ford, however, still high on Edison’s encouragement, not only left Detroit Edison and rigorously pursued the gasoline-powered car, he ordered the development of a flywheel magneto system for the Model T specifically to avoid using batteries. (One story I’ve read, possibly apocryphal, is that the battery in Ford’s pre-production Model T overturned during a camping trip, ending his jaunt and prompting him to ban batteries from his new low-priced car.) Ford began to change his mind, however, and by early 1914, word spread that he was working on a low-priced electric car. Reports appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in trade magazines and in newspapers as far away as New Zealand regarding Ford’s foray into EVs.

Ford confirmed the rumors in The New York Times on January 11, 1914: “Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans. The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.”

Ford may have fibbed when he said “multiple” experimental cars, but at least one was built in 1913. That’s it outside Ford’s Highland Park plant in the main photo. The EV was tiller-steered with an unusually swoopy frame and batteries under the seat. The man operating it, Fred Allison, was an electrical engineer from Detroit charged with designing the motor. Ford Richardson Bryan notes in his book, Friends, Families, & Forays: Scenes From the Life and Times of Henry Ford, the car’s electrical system and overall design were the work of Alexander Churchward, who was at the time vice president of Gray & Davis. General mechanic’s duties were assigned to Samuel Wilson, a former Cadillac employee. Churchward had, one year earlier, written a paper on the standardization of the electric car (he argued, among other things, for a 25 mph maximum speed). Wilson had experience with Cadillac’s self-starter program.

Work continued into 1914, as we can see in the photo above of Allison perched atop a second experimental EV. This one used a Model T frame, suspension and front axle, a Model T steering wheel and a worm-drive rear axle. The latter indicates the motor, mounted behind the driver in the first prototype, was up front in the second, near an additional bank of batteries. Bryan notes in his book Henry’s Lieutenants that Eugene Farkas was responsible not only for the worm-drive rear axle that was later modified for use in the EV, he was responsible for the car’s chassis. Rumors, stoked by Ford’s secretary, Ernest Liebold, swirled in the automotive press for the remainder of 1914. Edsel Ford was said to have been put in charge of the Edison-Ford. Henry Ford was said to have bought an electricity-generating plant in Niagara Falls and a site off Woodward Avenue in Detroit specifically for the production of the Edison-Ford.

As the year wore on, the rumor mill had the EV coming in 1915, then 1916. Details varied: It would cost somewhere between $500 and $750 (between $10,000 and $15,712 today) and would go somewhere between 50 and 100 miles on a charge. Even today, reports vary as to whether the car would have a brougham or cabriolet body. Edison, in an interview with Automobile Topics in May, 1914, divulged no details and made his best “It’s coming, just be patient” speech of the kind General Motors has perfected in recent years with the Chevrolet Volt.  “He called attention to the fact that a new automobile, especially one embodying such radical features as a $500 or $750 electric pleasure car naturally must have, cannot be designed and constructed in a few weeks.

“Mr. Henry Ford is making plans for the tools, special machinery, factory buildings and equipment for the production of this new electric. There is so much special work to be done that no date can be fixed now as to when the new electric can be put on the market. But Mr. Ford is working steadily on the details, and he knows his business so it will not be long. “I believe that ultimately the electric motor will be universally used for trucking in all large cities, and that the electric automobile will be the family carriage of the future. All trucking must come to electricity. I am convinced that it will not be long before all the trucking in New York City will be electric.”

Edison, by the way, was himself no stranger to electric cars. Bryan noted in Friends, Families and Forays that Edison built a battery-powered front-wheel-drive electric in 1895, and the industrialist owned some of the very expensive electric cars then in production. We’ve so far seen no evidence that the press of the day ever got its hands on photos or other solid evidence of the experimental EVs. Eventually, the media seemed to forget about the Edison-Ford altogether. Some conspiracy theorists believe the oil cartels got to Ford and Edison and prompted them to abandon it. These theorists offer as evidence the “mysterious” fire that nearly destroyed Edison’s workshops in West Orange, New Jersey, in December, 1914.

“Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey was birthplace to many of his inventions
both those that gained popularity in his lifetime and those that didn’t”

Besides the fact all work on the EV took place in Dearborn, Michigan, (and Edison had the entire place rebuilt by the next spring), The New York Times noted on December 10, 1914, that the fire skirted the two buildings in which any work on the electric car would have taken place: “It was seen that the only important buildings that could be saved were the experimental laboratory and the storage-battery building, and all attention was given to them.

Mr. Edison was in the experimental laboratory when the fire began. He helped in the salvage work, and when that was finished he went to the storage battery building and directed the protection of that structure. Rather, as Bryan wrote, the downfall of the Edison-Ford electric car came about because Ford demanded the use of Edison’s nickel-iron batteries in the car and would have no other battery powering the car.

Edison’s batteries, however, were found to have very high internal resistance and were thus incapable of powering an electric car under many circumstances. Heavier lead-acid batteries, which would have made the car too ponderous, were substituted behind Ford’s back. When he found out, he went ballistic. The program quickly fell by the wayside as other projects demanded Ford’s time. According to The Ford Century, Ford invested $1.5 million (almost $31.5 million today) in the electric-car project and nearly bought 100,000 batteries from Edison before the project fell apart.

Churchward, who had already racked up dozens of patents and would be issued dozens more, returned to Gray & Davis and for a time also served as vice president of A.B.C. Starter Company, which later employed Allison as chief engineer. Of the patents granted to Allison that we’ve found, one (1,225,558, dated May 8, 1917) was assigned to the A.B.C. Starter Company, while two others (1,478,196, dated December 18, 1923, and 1,508,377, dated September 16, 1924) were assigned to Ford Motor Company, so Allison very well may have leveraged his experience with the electric car to a career at Ford. Both men were instrumental in Ford’s adoption of the electric starter and electric lighting systems in 1919.”

“To demonstrate the reliability of the Edison nickel-iron battery, drivers rode a battery-powered Bailey in a 1,000-mile endurance run in 1910. The same battery technology is now getting a modern makeover.” (Image: National Park Service)

Edison’s Electric Car Battery Gets a Makeover  / June 27, 2012

“Thomas Edison didn’t just have telegraphs and light bulbs on his mind — the U.S. innovator marketed an electric car battery in the early 20th century. The same nickel-iron battery technology could soon make its return as a fast-charging power source for the 21st century. The modern makeover of Edison’s battery can fully charge in about 2 minutes and dump its energy load in less than 30 seconds — about 1,000 times faster compared with the original.

Existing prototypes can only hold enough power for a flashlight, but Stanford University hope to scale up the fast-charging battery to make Edison’s dream competitive once more in electric cars. “The Edison battery is very durable, but it has a number of drawbacks,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford University. “A typical battery can take hours to charge, and the rate of discharge is also very slow.”

“Thomas Alva Edison standing beside a Detroit Electric touring automobile,
produced by Detroit’s Anderson Electric Car Company, 1914”

Edison’s battery got its needed boost in charging speed with the help of nanotechnology. Researchers bonded the battery’s metal particles with carbon nanomaterials — graphene (sheets of carbon just 1-atom thick) and multiwalled carbon nanotubes — that can increase electrical conductivity. “Our battery probably won’t be able to power an electric car by itself because the energy density is not ideal,” said Hailiang Wang, a graduate student at Stanford University and lead author on the group’s new paper. “But it could assist lithium-ion batteries by giving them a real power boost for faster acceleration and regenerative braking.” Edison first unveiled the nickel-iron battery around 1900 as a cheap alternative to lead-acid batteries with long life and reliability.

The battery only saw use in early electric cars until 1920, but it became a popular backup power source for the railroad and mining industries until the mid-20th century. Today’s nickel-iron batteries usually find work storing electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. The Stanford group’s version has increased the charging speed, but still wants to make it better at holding its charge over time — the current charge decay is roughly equivalent to that of a lithium-ion battery. Success could make the batteries useful once more for hybrid and fully electric cars. Even the U.S. military could use such batteries in cases where soldiers need to charge something quickly. “Hopefully we can give the nickel-iron battery a new life,” Dai said. The research had funding support from Intel and is detailed in the June 26 issue of the journal Nature Communications.”

Inventing the road trip: How Edison and Ford made car travel an engine of their celebrity
by Michael Granberry  /  Aug 16, 2019

“…On their first trip, they invited naturalist John Burroughs to come along as a high-profile tour guide. Edison wanted Ford and Burroughs to travel to a place he loved: Florida but not just Florida. He wanted them to journey to the heart of the Everglades on what promised to be and what became a swamp voyage they’d never forget. Neither seemed to care that, at the time, the Everglades, in Guinn’s words, was “a big scary mess.”

Roads cutting through the middle of Florida permitting transport from East to West did not exist. And those that did exist were labeled “wish-to-God roads,” full of mud and rocks and things that cry out in the night. Even more bizarre was why Ford, Edison and Burroughs insisted on bringing their wives and having them wear dresses and bonnets. Equally strange, the men wore coats and ties.

“Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone”

Three local guides begged them not to do it. After all, they said, people die in the Everglades. There are snakes, alligators and panthers, all of which they encountered, with a punctuation of rain that never seemed to stop. And of course, they loved every minute, as did America. The next year, Ford and Edison added another companion — tire-maker Harvey Firestone, giving the four a new name: the Vagabonds.

“From left are Harvey Firestone Sr.; Thomas A. Edison; Harvey Firestone Jr.; E. W. Grove, Henry Ford; and Fred Seely courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.”

The trips continued until 1925, when Edison and Ford concluded that being “stars” had reduced a once-pleasurable pursuit from passion to pain. The suddenly famous pair had reached a point where once-solitary getaways became like a tour by the Rolling Stones. During their decade of wonder, the Vagabonds traveled from the Everglades to the Adirondacks, from the Catskills to the Smoky Mountains. Despite journeys that lasted only a few weeks, they “sparked endless speculation about where,” Guinn says, “they might venture next.”

As with many good books, this one is fun, serving as a chronicle of the trips and the eccentricity of the men who made them memorable. With a remarkable level of insight and detail, Guinn also shows us how different America was in the halcyon years before World War I. “In America, in 1914,” Guinn says over brunch at Tandoor, his favorite Indian restaurant in Arlington, Texas, “when they’re going to make their first trip, there are very few celebrities that everybody knows. It’s mostly politicians or military guys.”

“Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in Punta Rassa, Florida”

Because the media is essentially newspapers. Radio is still an eye blink away. The silent movies are just sort of taking hold. Television hasn’t been thought of. In all of America at this point, even more than politicians, and generals, the two most famous Americans are Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. “And that is because they had given us things. They had brought miracles to the lives of ordinary Americans. With Ford, it’s not just the Model T, the car you can afford.

It’s the $5 workday that makes competitors raise their salaries. Salaries go up across the country. Suddenly, people have money that they didn’t have before. And Henry Ford is clearly responsible. “Obviously, you’re going to worship the man. Edison — we all know about the incandescent bulb, electricity in your home. What people forget is that Edison also invented the phonograph, which brings music into American homes for the first time.”

That alone is one of the reasons Guinn, a former newspaperman, revels in the work of a nonfiction author. Until he began the research for “The Vagabonds,” he had no idea that Edison invented the phonograph. Edison also invented the kinetoscope and the flexible film roll, compelling “people to believe that he invented the movies. He did not,” Guinn says. “But he invented the middle steps that let movies be shown to a wider audience, from one little pinhole that only one person could look through. Transportation.

“Over about a decade, a quartet including Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, businessman Harvey Firestone, and naturalist John Burroughs took a series of summer camping trips, sometimes inviting others along for part or all of the journey.  The group, calling themselves the Vagabonds, took trips that might not exactly qualify as “roughing it”.

Before the advent of the popular car, besides railroads, the average American never traveled more than 12 miles from home, because that’s how far a horse and wagon could go to and from in one day. “Suddenly, you have the ability to get out. You’ve got the money to do things when you go out. You’ve got music in your home, if you want it. You’ve got light, so you can read into the night. You don’t have to blow out the candle when it gets dark. And suddenly, movies are there. So, obviously, everything they do is going to be fascinating to the public — and why not?”

“Edison (left) and Ford on vacation in the 1920s”

Ford, for one, gave birth to a moment in American history when “a few brave pioneers are beginning to think, ‘You know, we can get in cars and go long distances.’ ” There is, however, a problem. Guinn says 90% of the roads in America — and not just in the Everglades — are muddy or littered with sharp rocks. “And here come the two most famous men in America, along with their famous friends. They go on these trips for the fun of it. They love them. And they enjoy one another’s company.

Their road trips make them the very first Americans who are prominently using cars to get out and see the country.” Although a few other Americans previously engaged in experimental, long-distance car travel, Ford and Edison, Guinn says, were the first famous people to use cars for recreation and vacation. It is, he says, nothing short of amazing how Edison and Ford transformed America so rapidly. In 1900, there were 8,000 cars total. Ten years later, two years after the Model T, there were half a million cars and half of those were Model Ts. And those so-called “wish-to-God” roads? Ford and Edison’s travels spurred the transformation of America’s highway system.

“They travelled with a caravan of vehicles, a full contingent of service staff, and many comforts of home including furniture and china tableware. We’ve just digitized dozens of photos of the Vagabonds in action, including this photo of the group having breakfast at a large lazy susan–equipped wooden table. View more than 100 photos and artifacts related to the Vagabonds by visiting The Henry Ford’s digital collections…”

In 1920, six years after The Vagabonds launched their road trips, there were 8 million cars in America, and at least half of those were being used as the instruments that made road trips possible. “It would have happened anyway without Ford and Edison,” Guinn says. “I’m not saying that they were the absolute cause, but they were the examples that popularized the road trip.” And, of course, they didn’t do it just for fun. Both men were salesmen and zealous about profits. They had big egos. Ford hired cinematographers to document the trips, which also included high-end butlers, chefs and waiters.

Yes, there were tents, but there were also refrigerated food wagons and skilled camera operators documenting their every move. Newsreels were the rage in theaters, and they often showed Ford, Edison, Firestone and Burroughs having a grand old time. So, why not buy a car? “Every newspaper in the country covers every day of their trips,” Guinn says. “They became, in a sense, the Kardashians of their generation.” It even reached the point where Americans began to wonder at the start of each summer: Where are those guys going to go next? But alas, the novelty lasted only a decade. The advent of radio widened the celebrity net to include athletes — baseball players like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, in particular — and silent movie stars.

“In 1924, Rand McNally came out with the first national road map, throwing gasoline on the fire of the average American’s dream to get behind the wheel and take a trip. President Calvin Coolidge did his part, convening a study to explore an expansion of national parks. As Guinn says, by 1925, it was “no longer unique that anybody, even famous people, were taking a road trip. Soon, the road trips that Americans care about are their own, not somebody else’s, not Edison’s or Ford’s.”

“Our vacation days of 1918.  L to R: Burroughs (in the beard); Edison; Ford (?)”

Photo Album: When
Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Went Car-Camping
by Rebecca Onion / July 30, 2013

“These photographs are part of an album compiled by the nature writer John Burroughs and published after his death in 1921. In it, Burroughs documents a 12-day car-camping trip he took in 1918 at the age of 81, along with 71-year-old Thomas Edison and their younger friends, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone. This trip was one of a series. The foursome, adding or subtracting influential associates, made excursions of this kind from 1915 through 1924.

The whole album commemorating the 1918 trip is available online, through the Harvard University Libraries. In August 1918, the four “vagabonds,” as they called themselves, headed a convoy of eight vehicles traveling a meandering route through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. The group stopped to camp on farms, examine old industrial sites, take hikes along rivers, and (as one series of photographs documents) partake in playful contests measuring skill with farming implements.

The group represented a potent concentration of early 20th-century celebrity and wealth. Edison and Ford are the best-remembered of the “vagabonds” today, but Firestone, whose tire company’s fortunes rose along with Ford’s, was also a prominent industrialist in his time. And Burroughs was a much-beloved writer on the tail end of a successful career. Burroughs’ story of the trip contains many observations about his famous friends. Edison needed the trip, Burroughs wrote, because it was “a shaking up … an antidote to his concentrated life.”

The inventor sprawled on the ground at rest stops and meditated or read alone in one of the cars when the group had downtime. Ford was stubborn, an engineer at heart, and mechanically inclined; he tinkered with their cars throughout the trip, even managing to fix one that mechanics had declared a goner. At night, the group discoursed on Shakespeare, Thoreau, chemistry, and physics around the campfire.

Besides being full of such anecdotes, the book also serves as a great document of the practice of automobile travel in its earliest days. The group asked leave to pitch their tents on farms along the way and visited with the locals. Frequent stops were necessary, as the roads were rough. Burroughs admitted that he found auto travel difficult as an octogenarian. He added, enviously, that the portlier Edison found it easier, as he was “cushiony and adjustable, and always carries his own shock absorbers with him.”

“John Burroughs. Our vacation days of 1918. [S.l. : s.n., 1921?].“

“Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22”

‘Vagabonds’ Edison, Ford camped in Virginia / April 30, 2020

“In the summer of 1918, four celebrities, a slew of staff, and a caravan of cars stopped in Roanoke for a few hours on a two-week long camping trip through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.  Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and John Burroughs – essayist and naturalist – first began their summer motor excursions in 1914 through Florida’s Everglades, expanding each year to combine rest and relaxation with comradery, inspiration, and exploration.

In 1915, tire and rubber magnate Harvey Firestone joined the threesome to create the Four Vagabonds, as they called themselves, traveling the country on grand road trips each summer thereafter until 1924. These trips served a dual purpose: to disconnect from their bustling city life and advertise their inventions throughout the countryside.

This second aim was more a byproduct of their celebrity status, with each man occupying a spot throughout America’s households.  Each year their fame grew, so much so that in 1924, Harvey Firestone commented that the Vagabonds’ “simple gipsy [sic]-like fortnights” became more of a “traveling circus.”

Image 4 of 7 for Collection of 35 Original Photographs Documenting the Adventures of the “Vagabonds”: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22
“Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22”

The group started in Pennsylvania on their 1918 trip, traveling with six cars – two Packards, two Model Ts, and two Ford trucks. Accompanying the arrangement were seven men – joy-riders, as Burroughs described them, who most likely acted as cooks, servants and chauffeurs for the trip. The Vagabonds’ route consisted of meandering through West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, traveling last through Virginia before ending at Hagerstown, Maryland. On this 12-day trip, the Vagabonds slept in fields, explored creekbeds and rural farmland. Burroughs detailed the itinerary, and a crew member documented the journey through both photograph and film.

Image 3 of 7 for Collection of 35 Original Photographs Documenting the Adventures of the “Vagabonds”: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22
“Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22”

Because the roads were often rough, the group took frequent stops between camping locations. Some were stops to converse with the locals, while others were stops of necessity. On such a long and strenuous trip, the group recounted surprisingly few automobile problems. The first of these happened early in the trip just outside of Pittsburgh, forcing the group to stop in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, to have a radiator fan repaired. The garage lamented the fan’s demise, stating a new one would need to be ordered from Pittsburgh.

Image 5 of 7 for Collection of 35 Original Photographs Documenting the Adventures of the “Vagabonds”: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22“Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Harvey Firestone, c. 1918-22”

Not to be waylaid, Henry Ford rolled up his sleeves, rebuilding a fan in two hours with remnants of the original and copper wiring. Not long after their departure, Jeff Guin, author of The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison’s Ten-Year Road Trip, recounts that shortly after the miraculous fix in Connellsville, the drive shaft on the group’s commissary truck broke, causing it to fall well behind the caravan, effectively leaving the Vagabonds without lunch. This was soon remedied after a brief detour to the Summit Hotel near the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border, while the group waited for their food truck to be fixed and on its way to rejoin the group.

The Roanoke Times documented another problem, perhaps their only reason for stopping in Roanoke. The front page of the August 31, 1918, Times declared that the foursome “had dinner at Hotel Roanoke and would have slipped out just as quietly had they not run short of gasoline.” One of the cars stalled at the Red Cross Canteen at Jefferson Street and Shenandoah Avenue, which was conveniently located near the Hotel. Either before or after lunch, Firestone visited Roanoke’s Blue Ridge Tire & Rubber Company after learning they sold his company’s tires. Once gas had been fetched, the Vagabonds continued on to Lexington where they stayed at the Castle Inn before making their way up the Shenandoah Valley into Hagerstown, Maryland. Between Lexington and Hagerstown, the Vagabonds paid 19 tolls!

“Campsite on Witt Farm near Tazewell – 1918”

Ultimately, these trips paved the way for the recreational use of car camping, along with the idea of exploring the pre-industrial natural world outside one’s typical area of travel. Each geniuses in their own right, the men would see their trips as a way to not only disconnect from the hustle and bustle of their industrial lives, but to expand their mental capabilities. At each camping location, which the men identified and named,

Burroughs set his tent apart from the rest of the group, aiming to document the flora and fauna of the area, sometimes just enjoying the natural sights and sounds surrounding him. At creekbeds and mills, Edison and Ford looked for ways to harness renewable energy and identify new ways to conduct electricity. Edison collected sap-filled plants on the side of the road, hoping to discover an alternative to rubber for Firestone’s tires. Firestone speculated on ways to make their camp, along with any businesses or industries they came upon, run more efficiently.

“Vagabonds at Lead Mine, West Virginia; The Henry Ford Photo”

And while the Vagabonds partook in exploratory endeavors as they drove and conducted intellectual conversations around their campfires, they also tested their physical strength. Ford, having a natural competitive streak, challenged the group to inane contests. These included challenges in tree-climbing, stair-jumping, wood chopping, sharp-shooting, high-kicking, and in 1918 specifically, separate contests on the cradling and sheaving of oats.  In his 1921 book Under the Maples, Burroughs commented on the Vagabonds’ intent in their yearly camping excursions: “discomfort . . . is what the camper-out is unconsciously seeking. We grow wary of our luxuries and conveniences . . . We cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies, and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.”

Ford clowns while Edison beams during a rest stop on a camping trip. This picture is probably the only one ever taken of Ford with a cigarette. The auto king and Edison both abhorred the use of “little white slavers” as they called cigarettes.”

But despite Burroughs’ description, the group was far from uncomfortable. Each man had a tent equipped with a cot and mattress. They had gourmet dinners, table settings, including a lazy susan. They were served by staff. Edison built the group mobile electric generators to illuminate the camp after the sun went down. In 1919, Ford designed a truck to carry a gas stove and a refrigerator. While the Vagabonds certainly lacked modern amenities, they didn’t necessarily rough it.”

Thomas Edison on the progress of electricity  /  25 November 1896

“The “Telegraph” publishes an account of an interview which its New York correspondent had on Monday with Mr. Edison regarding the probable future developments of electricity for locomotive, domestic, and commercial purposes. The following is an extract: – “We began with the subject of the propulsion of motor cars. For these, at present, he considers that the best form of motor lies between steam and the gas engine.

The advantage might at any moment change to electricity, but such an occurrence depended wholly upon the discovery of some more efficient and stable system of storage batteries. Excessive weight, cumbrousness, and other drawbacks stand in the way of stored-electricity as a motive power. “I think,” he added, “that we are on the eve of a great extension of motor vehicles.” Flying machines he also believes are on the point of being practically developed.

The first steps will apparently be made by military experts. He himself had instituted some experiments, mainly with a view to ascertaining preliminary data. This problem and many others would be solved if we could derive electricity from the direct oxygenation of coal, without the intervention of furnaces, boilers, and steam. “I have,” he said, “done something towards this great advance in a number of ways, but without reaching any results of commercial value. Nevertheless, I am certain that the flying-machine is coming.” Mr. Edison believes in endless minor uses for electricity.

We discussed in some detail the various suggested sources of power when, at some distant period, the coal mines should be exhausted. Mr. Edison has always believed in the practicability of John Ericsson’s idea for the conversion of solar heat in tropical countries into electric power, but remarked that civilisation and sun power do not go together. Ericsson’s parabolic reflector would, within the tropics, produce heat enough to raise steam to any extent, but here again cheap light, and storage were needed. Even if those were secured, it was hard yet to see how accumulated electricity could be transferred from one country to another. In the conversion of the power of tides into electrical energy, the inventor finds great difficulties.

At such places as the Bay of Fundy, where the rise of the tide was enormous, this task might possibly be easy, but where, as is generally the case, the rise and fall does not exceed four or five feet, a large investment would be necessary. For the moment there is a great field for invention in the direction of the proper combustion of fuel, especially in London, where it means getting rid of the worst elements of smoke and fog. “You are, however,” he added, “doing a great deal, getting in steam engines many times as much force out of the coal as you used to do.

The same difficulty meets us in using the currents of rivers and waterfalls as exists in regard to tides unless the current is fast and the waterfall is a considerable one.” Electricity was generated by the existing machinery with difficulty at Niagara, where the water fell through a considerable height. Wind power, he thought, we might come to use as a great source of electricity, especially where trade winds blew for long periods at a time.

The internal heat of the earth was, of course, a great reservoir of power which had not yet been tapped, and would be difficult to reach. It was impossible to say what might be done in the future. “The best thing of the present day,” said Mr. Edison, “is that every discovery cheapens articles and tends to bring everything within the reach of common people. I am afraid they don’t appreciate this enough, but it is a fact all the same, and in the future it will be always so.

Every step will benefit the great body of the people. Our hope lies in chemistry and physics, and these are in touch with physiology and surgery. There is an endless scope for discovery and invention. The wisest people we have don’t know the millionth part of any subject, and I am convinced there is not one thing we do in the best way. The possibilities of advance are infinite, sir, infinite.”



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