Electric Vehicle 1900’s Style: New Leases On Old Tech

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. 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. But then again, who thought we’d see the return of bell-bottom pants or vinyl records?

Edison’s Car

Edison and his electric car in 1913.

Even 90 years after his death, Thomas Edison is still a household name. Why not? He invented — or at least popularized — quite a number of things we take for granted in the modern world. 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.

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. 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.

Nickle-Iron Today

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 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.

At Scale

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 below.

Mining History

Edison holding one of his batteries.

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.

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65 thoughts on “Electric Vehicle 1900’s Style: New Leases On Old Tech

  1. A (now deceased) friend in the local old radio club was a WW1 military radio collector (an expensive and rarefied hobby) In the early 2000s, he discovered a case of unused Edison aviation batteries in a rotten crate in a barn–he doped them with the appropriate caustic soda solution and started using them. I have a stainless cased Edison miner’s lamp of uncertain vintage that has his classic signature/trademark on it as well.

  2. Edison’s nickel-iron cell simply vented the hydrogen and oxygen produced when it neared full charge (same as a flooded lead-acid battery). Hydrogen can be hazardous, and the cell lost water, which needed to be replaced.

    But the nickel-iron cell became the nimh (nickel-iron hydride) cell. The cell is sealed, so the hydrogen is trapped inside. The iron electrode is made spongy, so the hydrogen gets adsorbed into its porous structure. On discharge, the hydrogen is then converted back into water (generating electricity in the process), so you don’t have to add water.

    Nickel-iron and nimh both outperform lead-acid and nicads. We’d have seen a lot more of them, except for the patent fights.

      1. Nickel Iron batteries are NiFe. Nickel Iron Hydride batteries should be NiFeH but since such are still experimental, none being mass produced, it looks like nobody has adopted that shorthand.

        NiMH are Nickel Metal Hydride.

    1. Actually, Edison nicked the iron cell from the Swedish guy who invented the NiCad cell earlier by experimenting with different metals, and NiMH cells became to be because of the original developer, not because of Edison.

  3. Did Edison ever actually invent anything. He is always credited with the invention of the light bulb, but he bought the patent for that off another inventor. His team of engineers figured out how to make them cheaper and mass produce them. He was a great leader, but he had a terrible habit of taking credit for the things his engineers did. I mean should we even be calling him an inventor, isn’t it enough he was a very effective leader.

          1. DC is still a chemical energy storage reality. However, the car’s traction motor is AC, as it is these days on most locomotives, electric transit vehicles, and other electric traction.

          2. Well, Nikola Tesla did invent the 3 phase induction motor too, which, though unsuitable for EV propulsion this day and age because of low efficiency are in most of Elons cars. So, I’m convinced this is the reference when AC propulsion decided to change its name to Tesla when Elon walked in the door?

          3. Tesla became known as the “father of AC” because he got a patent for multi-phase AC motors, and Westinghouse started using his patents and his name to argue that the company has the priority rights to AC power distribution using the “Tesla system”. Whether he invented the whole thing has nothing to do with it – it was pure marketing.

    1. There are two ways to look at what edison actually did. 1) Great inventor who came up with miraculous new technologies. Or 2) An evil shark who gave inventors jobs at his invention factory. I personally lean towards no. 2. He created a business model that gave tinkerers/inventors/tradesman good jobs that paid fairly well for the time. He then put his name on anything that came out of his “factory”. There are still plenty of companies doing this today. Think any company that creates. 3M Dow BASF. One other thing he was good at is buying useful patents. He would then have his guys try to perfect those patents. A classical example is the light bulb. He bought patents on the envelope, filament, And mounting. It was actually Lewis Latimer who perfected the filament. https://myrtleavenue.org/black-fort-greene-resident-lewis-latimer-the-invention-of-electric-light/ I used to have a set of NI-FE batteries that were great for various pwer supply projects that I built. The ones I had were from the railroad for power backup.

      1. Some company?
        No, all companies do what Edison has been doing for all his life: hire inventors, circumvent patents or take credit/ownership for employee patent.
        Nothing has changed. Today if you invent the next big thing as an employee, your just get pretty frame to put in your cubicle and if you are lucky a modest bonus (in the order of fraction of monthly salary).

      2. Growing up, Edison was my idol and role model. Until I got older and learned more of his shady and less-than-ethical practices (electrocuting an elephant as example). Then I switched my idolatry to Tesla.

      3. Or a great innovator who utilized other peoples talents to make himself and thousands of others very rich. Edison and others like him pulled this country ahead of everyone else and built the technology foundation that built the world we live in today.

    2. Probably best thought of as an engineering manager and businessman. He only personally invented a handful of minor technologies, but he was good at putting together enough science and engineering talent to take impractical lab curiosities and make them into something durable enough and simple enough to market to customers who didn’t have a degree in physics.

    3. Sounds like Microsoft Bill… the innovations that are seen by many as being invented by Microsoft were not. Bill was simply good at buying the right technology (or patents) and calling it his own (which it now legally was) and stomping on compeditors.

    4. The invention of the lightbulb was an incremental process with many people contributing from Humphrey Davy onwards. The invention of the incandescent lightbulb however is usually attributed to Joseph Swan nowadays. Swan and Edison later formed a joint venture company of course, Ediswan.

  4. Another virtue of the Ni-Fe battery, besides it’s tolerance for abuse(physical as well as electrical), is that they have essentially infinite charge cycles. In New York city today there are still some Edison batteries in use that were made at the turn of the last century. The low current density of these batteries make them a bad choice for cars and laptops, but it is essentially irrelevant for grid storage. The biggest current market for new Ni-Fe batteries is for use in off grid housing for energy storage. The biggest problem with these batteries is that they are difficult and expensive to manufacture. Flow batteries will probably be the future of grid storage, but Nickle-Iron could still have a place.

  5. As the tackle-master of the university Caving Club in the 1990s I had few Nife cells in my keeping.
    In fact, at the time one would choose a caving harness made of Nylon or Polyester according to the chemistry of your cap lamp. One being resistant to alkaline electrolyte and one to acid. I have forgotten which way round it was, though.

  6. I recently bought a book about electric vehicles their batteries (circa 1922, a Lindsey republishing) I forgot why I got it, but I suspect it had something to do with this. They have quite a bit on them.

  7. I found reference in a book I have to Hubbell type alkaline batteries used in miner’s lamps from the Portable Electric Safety Lamp Co. (1922)

    I miss caving. I made my own lamp with my grandpa in the 80s. At the time I didn’t even know how a circuit worked. lol. Don’t remember if I actually used it. Had to borrow clothes, cause all I had was cotton, but I went in a place with dad’s caving group, and it was just beyond cool. Dad & I later went to a cave partly open to tourists, and we were kinda part of the show. ^^; I crawled up a bit that was too small for adults, It’s dumb thinking back, but I was worried about monsters. xD OK, got a bit away from batteries. ^^;

      1. Living underground, it gets more tempting every day. Just so you don’t have to contend with the three seashells, I can see why they avoided big brother. The irony in the Eloi being farmed by the descendents of the underclass.

        1. Something I’ve always wondered. Why, considering the Morlocks were the only people who seem to have kept any semblance of human culture, running machines, farming, maintaining underground habitats and the Eloi were basically anthropomorphic cattle, the time traveler didn’t have more sympathy for the Morlocks because he had, at least intellectually if not gustatorily, far more in common with them than the Eloi.

  8. Well this shows that we’ve had all the technology we need for electric cars for over a century, except the battery, and it seems it might be that way for another century. But this does seem interesting for off grid storage, and when it’s overcharged and starts producing H and O2 I suppose you could have it automatically topped up with water when you tap off the gas. Also if you had a hydrogen fuel cell car and a Nickle Iron storage battery for your house could you use it to fuel your car? (How much hydrogen would you get from a house battery, a whiff or a shiteload?)

  9. I think I might have had a NiFe cell left by my grandad (an electrical engineer). It was rectangular and about 5 inches each side, and 20mm thick.

    Unfortunately I didn’t know anything about the chemistry and added some sulphuric acid to it to get it going, but it got quite hot and fizzy and didn’t work too well after that….

  10. Jay Leno has a 1908 Baker Electric that has its original Nickel-Iron batteries. He used to drive it a few times a year to work at The Tonight Show.

    Somewhere I have an old magazine from the the 1960’s with an article about wet cell Nickel batteries. They were used in a lot of military applications during WW2 and during and after the war were repurposed by European civilians for starting engines, running radios, lights etc. Their beefy metal cased construction and never wearing out nature made them very popular. One picture with the article showed a wrecked 1930’s car with one of the batteries under the hood, exposed by the torn away metal. The car’s owner kept the battery for his new car.

    Some companies made big noises in the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s about manufacturing them in the USA for car batteries but only made token efforts at manufacturing, then quietly allowed the technology to fade away, while they concentrated on making incremental improvements to lead-acid batteries, which do wear out and fail.

    Same tactic as the companies that made incandescent bulbs did when they got together and agreed to not make them *too good*. The Absorbed Glass Mat lead-acid batteries seems to have been hit by that too. When the spiral wound ones were first introduced, my sister bought one for the car she used in a delivery job. Turned out the car’s alternator was very weak but the battery was so good she used the car daily for two weeks before it lost too much charge to start it. I replaced the alternator and it was fine.

    That battery did eventually conk out. The replacement, same brand, same model, lasted no longer than a conventional flat plate type, even with a properly working alternator. Tried them in some other vehicles and same story. No better (but cost more) than regular lead-acid batteries.

    1. Want to know a secret? The Baker Electric was developed by them in NJ. In and around Princeton. It’s batteries? First were Lead-Acid storage ones, then the ones the Edison Battery company introduced. They made them for the railroad first. Now the company makes fork lift rigs.

    2. Conspiracy theories aside, Nickel-iron batteries have the disadvantage of requiring a rather large overpotential to charge, and they leak the charge rapidly. The low solubility of the metals in the electrolyte is what makes them extremely durable, but also slow and inefficient.

      The power density is about half that of lead-acid batteries and they lose about a third of the capacity in a month, where a good lead-acid battery will only lose about 5%.

  11. I researched these extensively few years ago, reading a lot of Edison’s patents etc in addition to anything else I could find. They are still made but not to Edison’s specs. I don’t know if the addition of carbon improved anything, but my understanding was it was far cheaper than the original nickel “flake” (the patent on that was interesting as well) that was pressed into the Nickel Oxide/Hydroxide part of the cell to improve conductivity. The story was that this difference shortened the lifespan of the cells from 80 years + to something short of what they are worth. The one company I reached in the US that take orders for the Chinese made batteries refused to answer any questions on this subject so i’m looking at (and powered by) my 5KWH LiFePO4 battery bank as I write this.
    Edison was a genius, He didn’t invent all of the ideas, he made them as reliable and usable as possible, The Devil (and cost) is in the details. IIRC In the nickel flake manufacturing patent he reveals one problem was that ammonia was previously used in the plating or stripping bath and the need for replenishment and vapors was an expensive (and unhealthy) detriment that was solved with ammonium sulfate. A lot of people have general ideas, ideas are a dime a dozen. It is the people with the intelligence and drive to figure out the extreme details of making the idea work or of hiring and financing the teams that can do so, then market them successfully, that turn the ideas into reality IMO.

  12. One of my uncles has an off-grid house that had really large Edison NiFe (Rhymes with “Knives” in the regional dialect…) batteries sourced from a very large maritime emergency power back-up system. If I remember correctly, they lasted for about 20 years for household use (I think his is using Deep Cycle maritime SLA). And NiFe batteries can definitely take more abuse than any battery tech I am aware of – such as -30F winters, +90F summers, psychotic humidity and temperature swings, non-“courteous” charge and discharge rates, etc. For non-mobile or non-weight sensitive applications, NiFe rules!

    1. If he still has them there is a fair possibility they could be rinsed out (Careful !!! crystalized potassium hydroxide!) and filled with a new properly mixed solution and charged, and work fine. The mix is listed in one of the documents on care or maybe right in the patents. I believe it was just KOH (caustic) and small amount of LiOH . The originals were nickel plated steel inside and virtually impervious to the “lye” solution, and the iron oxide and Nickel oxide are probably fine unless cooked dry and cooked some more,,,

    2. There is one battery chemistry that can partially compete, and that is LTO/Lithium Titanate, which has several times the energy density, high enough even for some mobile things.

  13. I remember having seen Edison batteries in marine applications as young kid in the early 50’s. If I recall correctly they were 8 volt batteries used on vessels with 32 volt electrical systems. I think the electrodes were sintered iron. Thanks for the interesting article.

  14. On Jay Leno’s Baker Electric, I think that he mentioned that he bought it from a silent film leading lady who could no longer drive. She actually used it around town in CA until the 1970’s/80’s (?). They were expensive, but well-off women bought them because they were easy to start and they could be independent of help. My great-grandfather, a pretty robust man in his time, broke his arm starting a Model T due to a backfire, so it was not easy to do and it could be dangerous.

    When it was new, the Baker was actually about as fast as a Model T, but it didn’t matter, because the streets and roads in the early Model T era were so bad that you couldn’t drive that fast anyway.

  15. The point is… Why are they so expensive to build, if the materials are cheap? What manufacturing process is the one that makes them expensive? The article doesn’t say that.

    1. Material cost is just a small part of the overall cost of anything and often material cost is the lowest of all the costs involved in manufacturing, marketing and selling anything.

      The material cost of these $1000 smart phones we all type on is less than $100 but the overall cost is probably at least 8× the material cost.

    2. The original design used alternating layers of flaked iron and nickel packed into perforated metal tubes. I assume that back in the day when the batteries were a new thing, they were made with manual labor rather than automatic machinery. Even back then the labor costs added up, even at pennies per hour.

      Inflation calculators are nifty. I was looking at some 1960’s Heathkit speakers and their price back then around $40 is the equivalent of over $400 today. So think about how much 10 cents an hour would be in the 1920’s.

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