We've NOT Come That Far, Baby

By Bill Moore

Posted: 20 May 2010

In the early 1900's, here in America there were something in the neighborhood of hundred electric car manufacturers. Some of the more well-known were Detroit Electric, Waverly, and Baker. Even Henry Ford, in collaboration with Thomas Edison, planned to offer a low-cost electric car; sadly, it never got past the prototype stage. Virtually all of them weren't much more capable than today's electric golf car or Neighborhood Electric Vehicle like the GEM.

One of those now long-forgotten early entrepreneurs was one Oliver Parker Fritchle of Denver, Colorado, pictured above in his company's '100 Mile' Fritchle Victoria. Wikipedia has a extensive history on both the man and his machines, but what I found compelling about his story is the fact that in 1908, to demonstrate the advances he had incorporated into his vehicle, he set out from Lincoln, Nebraska, about 50 miles to the southwest of where I am, and followed the route of the Burlington railroad. The above photograph, taken by an unknown photographer, purports to show Fritchle and his car "lost" somewhere west of Omaha that first day. Given that his top speed was 25 mph and he probably couldn't do more than 15 or so given the nature of the roads at that time, he probably arrived in Omaha sometime in the afternoon, probably passing the construction site of the newly formed Municipal University of Omaha -- later UNO -- just east of 72nd and Dodge, then on the outskirts of the town.

Electric trolleys had been running in the city for nearly 20 years, so he would have been able to find power somewhere, probably in the downtown area, and likely provided by one of the local private power companies. What would become the Omaha Public Power District, wouldn't take place for another nine years. The first electric power generation station was located on the corner of Tenth and Farnam in the Strang Building, part of what we today call the "Old Market." My guess is he arranged to have his car recharge over night, while he booked himself into one of the hotels downtown, possibly the Paxton, four blocks away from the Strang Building.

The car he was driving incorporated a number of innovations for its time. Writes Wikipedia

His first design halved the power consumption, nearly doubling the range, relative to competitors' vehicles. One contribution to this advantage was his successful implementation of what was known then as "electric brakes" and more recently as regenerative brakes. The concept of using the motor to recharge the batteries while slowing an electric vehicle was not new even as early as 1908. However, implementing it effectively in automobiles and trucks was still quite tricky with the technology of the period and required development of a proprietary controller.

Fritchle produced a number of practical innovations in addition to his battery and vehicle patents, such as one of the first automobile child seats. The Fritchle Milostat was a clever solution to the problem electric vehicle operators had accurately estimating the driving distance available from their batteries. It was simply a hydrometer calibrated to display the percentage of charge remaining rather than the normal, but difficult to interpret, specific gravity reading.
Only once did Fritchle misjudge the distance between recharging points, running out of power in Iowa two miles (3km) shy of his next charging station. Finding electric power at that early date was a challenge, not just because of its availability but also because of its lack of standardization. Today, we take for granted 110/220 volt AC, but in Fritchle's day, no such standards existed. Again, reports Wikipedia…
A wide variety of alternating and direct current power sources were used for recharging. These ranged from a dynamo borrowed from a physician's X-ray machine to a direct connection at a community power plant. Most of the garages he stopped at could safely recharge his vehicle, but in other situations he was often left to figure it out on his own. Fritchle acknowledged that touring in an electric car was only feasible for an "expert electrician" due to the complications of safely recharging from the variety of power sources and connections that existed at that time. He was not trying to portray electric vehicles as practical for cross-country travel, but rather demonstrate that his electric vehicles were as robust as the best of the fuel-powered automobiles.
With his car's 28 lead-acid cells fully recharged on the morning of November 1, 1908, Fritchle set out for Des Moines -- 120-some miles to the East -- following the tracks of the Rock Island railroad and disappeared into the dusty pages of history. Despite the remarkable advances -- for their time -- he'd incorporated into his vehicle, easily making it superior to most of its competitors, by 1912, the first era of the electric car began to fade. By 1917, Fritchle produced its last electric automobiles, but not before introducing a gasoline-electric hybrid in 1916. After this, the company shifted its focus to building wind turbines well into the late 1920s. Oliver Fritchle eventually went to work for Buick Motor Company and retired in 1941.

What is remarkable about this story is how much it mirrors EV world milestones nearly a century later. Hybrids, regenerative braking, battery technology, charging standard issues, a point strongly emphasized by Kris De Decker

If today's supporters of EV's would dig into the specifications and the sales brochures of early 20th century electric "horseless carriages", their enthusiasm would quickly disappear. Fast-charged batteries (to 80% capacity in 10 minutes), automated battery swapping stations, public charging poles, load balancing, the entire business plan of Better Place, in-wheel motors, regenerative braking: it was all there in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. It did not help.
He goes on to highlight how little progress we've really made in the last century, with most of the advances consumed in the name of speed and embodied energy. It's a fair and sobering critique. While I doubt we'll see the return of the Fritchle Victoria or the Waverly Brougham in their horseless carriage forms, future generations of designers and engineers are going to have to adapt to these realities, and motorists may have to compromise on what the vehicles of the future deliver. After all, what good a car that can go 100 mph when traffic in tomorrow's megacities like New York, London, Delhi or Shanghai moves at less than 10 mph?

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