top of page

World's Most Interesting Man: Why the Electric Vehicle was Killed 100 Years Ago

Updated: May 3

It is a well-known fact that Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were mates - they lived in the same neighbourhood, were friends on Facebook, and would exchange lavish gifts. Before that, Henry’s first serious job was as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit in 1891. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that Henry was not always a petrolhead - in fact in the early years, he was more into electricity than he was internal combustion engines. Ford looked up to Edison, 16 years his senior, and often referred to him as the greatest man in the world.

Ford and Edison formed half of a group named the Vagabonds (the other half being Harvey Firestone - one of the first global manufacturers of automobile tires, and naturalist John Burroughs) who were known to head out into the woods every year on glamping excursions. In 1899, Edison began working to develop an alkaline storage battery that could better support the electrical needs of a motor vehicle. Unsurprisingly, Edison was no fan of the internal combustion engine, saying: “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”. He soon started to convince Henry Ford that electricity was the way to go (although it has to be said, that Henry had already started to develop the Model T).

In early 1914, word had gotten around that work had started on a low-priced electric car. Reports appeared in the Wall Street Journal, in trade magazines, and in other newspapers as far away as New Zealand regarding Ford's foray into electric cars. Ford himself even confirmed the rumors in the January 11, 1914 issue of the New York Times: "Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don't like to talk about things that are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something about my plans. The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile that 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". Henry may have been stretching the truth a little by saying there were several prototypes that had been built, it is known that at least one came into existence in 1913 known as the Edison-Ford. As the year wore on, the rumor mill pegged the release of the electric car for 1915, then 1916. Details on the car varied: It would cost somewhere between $500 and $750, and it would range somewhere between 50 miles and 100 miles on a charge. Edison himself, in an interview with Automobile Topics in May 1914, divulged no details and made his best "It's coming, just be patient" speech and added, "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."

The project then mysteriously died which begs the question, what happened? There are numerous theories, but allow me to regale you with my favorite. Enter John D Rockefeller, the world's first billionaire. Yes, he was the first oil barron, and he initially made his fortune in the kerosene market. There were no automobiles at the time, so he focused exclusively on the illumination of households. In 1885, Rockefeller wrote to one of his partners, “Let the good work go on. We must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good.” Or as he put it to another partner: “Hope we can continue to hold out with the best illuminator in the world at the lowest price.” His well-groomed horses delivered blue barrels of oil throughout America’s cities and were already symbols of excellence and efficiency. Consumers were not only choosing Standard Oil over that of its competitors; they were also preferring it to coal oil, whale oil, and electricity. Millions of Americans illuminated their homes with Standard Oil for one cent per hour; in doing so, they made Rockefeller the wealthiest man in American history.

In the production of kerosene, one of the by-products is gasoline, for which there was no use at the time. It would either be burned or pumped down the river. Imagine, therefore, how Rockefeller’s ears pricked up when he heard that Ford was developing a gasoline-powered engine and an electric-powered one. It does not take a genius to realize that Rockefeller and Edison were not good friends - it was unlikely that the former would receive an invitation to the annual glamping event. They were sworn rivals. Edison wanted to illuminate homes with electricity while Rockefeller wanted to keep pumping his foul kerosene into the maps of the middle to lower class. Then Edison comes along and wants to build an EV with Ford! There is every reason to believe that Rockefeller, the world’s wealthiest man, was able to convince Ford to scrap his plans for an electric vehicle and double down on his plans to build the world’s largest motor company fueled by the by-product of his kerosene business. With this, the EV was killed and the internal combustion engine dominated the roads for the next 100 years.


bottom of page