Sunday, March 29, 2009

George M. Pullman: Force for Progress or Corporate Despot?

And the sons of Pullman porters, and the sons of engineers,
Ride their fathers' magic carpet made of steel...
- Steve Goodman

He was buried at night in a reinforced crypt with tons of concrete poured on top of his casket to protect it from desecration by those who hated him. He was the American idyll, the self-made man. In his life, he changed the way people traveled, he built his vision of a planned community, and he was the center of one of the most bitter labor struggles of his era. His name was George Mortimer Pullman.

Pullman’s name has become eponymous with three things: railroad sleeping-cars, the village he created to house his factory workers outside of Chicago, and the bitter labor strike of 1894.

George Pullman was born in western New York in1831. He left school when he was 14 and worked for a time in his brother’s cabinet-making business. He was an ambitious kid with a natural talent for business. While still in New York, his father, a builder, had contracted to move local buildings that were in the way of a project to widen the Erie Canal. When his father died unexpectedly, George took over the contracts and successfully completed the work. He took those building-moving skills with him to Chicago. The young city was built on a low-lying swamp. Entire blocks needed to be raised to afford better drainage and sewer function and Pullman was one of the men who was contracted to raise the buildings and streets. While on an early train trip, he experienced the primitive conditions on early railroad cars which had only rough bunks for sleeping. In his own discomfort, he saw opportunity. He began building a better sleeping-car but the Civil War interrupted his early plans as all available manufacturing resources were turned to the war effort.

Pullman went to the Colorado gold fields during the Civil War. After raising capital in a dozen business ventures related to the mining industry, Pullman returned to Chicago and began building the most luxurious sleeping-cars of his day. His cars cost four times what a normal passenger-car cost. They made long, grueling railroad trips not only tolerable but comfortable. Pullman slowly signed up one railroad after another to put his sleeping-cars in their passenger trains. But unlike other car manufacturers, Pullman never sold his cars to the railroads, he leased them and managed them directly. He was the first to hire special sleeping car porters to make up the beds at night. These Pullman Porters were almost always black men from the south. While he paid them lower wages than he would have had to pay to whites, his wages were much better than most blacks could earn in other occupations. By leasing the cars, he insured not only the quality of the service (and hence repeat customers) but he also was able to move his cars between railroads to balance changes in seasonal demand.

In the early 1880’s with his business needing new and enlarged manufacturing facilities, Pullman decided to build a huge new factory complex outside of Chicago. To optimize the output of his workers, he envisioned an ideal community with everything that his workers would need. It would also be free of the vices found in other cities. He worked with a young architect, Solon Spencer Beman, and a landscape architect, Nathan F. Barrett, to design his planned community. It was named, naturally enough, Pullman, Illinois. Pullman never considered anything more than a prudent business investment. It was expected to return a profit and increase the productivity of his workers. While the town looked wonderful and visitors marveled at the architecture, the workers themselves grew to hate it. They had no say in the administration of their town, the rents were high, and any discussions of organizing labor was severely repressed.

The Panic of 1893 was brought on by speculation and overbuilding of railroads. As railroads failed, a recession set in and orders for Pullman cars plummeted. In 1894, Pullman laid off two-thirds of his workforce and cut the salaries of the remainder by 25 percent. He didn’t, however, reduce his rents or the costs of food and other necessities in the town of Pullman. When his employees appealed to him to either cut the rents or reinstate their wages, he refused to negotiate. Many of his workers were getting paychecks, after withholding for rent, of only a few pennies to feed their families.

Eugene V. Debs had been organizing the American Railway Union to bring together the less-skilled workers of the nation’s railroads (the skilled workers formed brotherhoods which did not participate in the subsequent strike actions). The ARU organized the Pullman workers and George Pullman immediately closed his doors and laid off even those workers who did not join the union. Pullman was repeatedly asked to go to arbitration to settle the strike but he steadfastly refused. The strike eventually disrupted the U.S. Mail service which was primarily carried by train. Because the ARU had members nation-wide and because Chicago was the major rail hub, the strike started to impact rail service across the country. The disruption of the mail gave President Grover Cleveland an excuse to send in Federal troops to break the strike. A dozen strikers were killed in the battles that followed and millions of dollars were lost in damages to buildings and property. But the strike was broken, as was the union. Debs was arrested, convicted and spent six months in prison.

George Pullman became one of the most hated faces of the Gilded Age. He died three years later in 1897 of a heart attack. It was the residual hostility from the Pullman Strike that resulted in his burial at night to protect his body from desecration.

The deep unrest between labor and capital was not resolved by the Pullman Strike. It seems to me that the story essentially repeated itself with Henry Ford who first raised his workers up with the five dollar day and then tried to ultimately deny them a decent living which lead to the violent River Rouge Strikes of 1937. But at least one good thing came out of the Pullman Strikes and other labor unrest of that period. Labor Day was created as a national holiday in June of 1894 both to commemorate the working class of the country and to dampen the hostilities between labor and capital.

George Pullman was an entrepreneur, a visionary thinker, and a social experimenter. Pullman was not, however, someone who could see that it was in his best interest and the interest of his company to arbitrate his differences with his workforce. His intractable position cost many people, himself included, dearly.

Post Script: Following his death, the courts forced the Pullman Company to divest itself of its real estate holdings, and the town of Pullman was annexed into the city of Chicago. You can still visit the neighborhoods today. See this link on Flickr.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Almost 30 years ago, a television series debuted which had a profound impact on our popular understanding of science, especially the science of astronomy. The series, Cosmos, was hosted by astronomer Carl Sagan. The series was the most widely-watched public television series in history until Ken Burns' series, The Civil War, was produced in the 1990’s. Cosmos is now available in its entirety (and for free) on

[Image of Hulu video. If the video does not show up, click through to original post]

Despite its age, the series is still worth watching. The passage of time does date the film somewhat. The special effects are pre-Star Wars and the pacing is much slower than today’s quick-cut-editing television. But the writing is beautiful and the pace actually lets you contemplate what is being said.

Sagan, who died in 1996, reminds me a lot of Lewis Thomas, another lyrical scientist who wrote several wonderful books of essays on science including The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. Both men manage to convey that at the bottom of all we know there is still an awe-inspiring mystery that is capable of humbling us if only we will pause long enough. We need to look up at the stars or down at a flower at least once in awhile to stay connected to a bigger reality. Sagan said that we are made of “star-stuff”, the very atoms that were once parts of stars are now what make up our bodies and everything else in the universe. As we get bogged down in the daily grind of the 24-hour news cycle about the latest economic disaster or the Celeb-of-the-Week Club, we would do well to remember that “This too will pass”, as will the stars themselves. But the mystery will remain.

Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilisation and perhaps our species as well.
- Carl Sagan

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Technology Revolutions are Messy

Clay Shirky had an interesting post in his blog entitled Newspapers, Thinking the Unthinkable. I recommend reading it. Shirky’s point is that the newspaper industry has been struggling since the advent of the internet to find a new business model that will allow them to make money and stay in business. His prognosis is that they can’t and they will disappear. He comments:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Much has been written about the demise of newspapers. Nicholas Carr in the The Big Switch devotes much of a chapter to the topic. As Carr describes it, newspapers were able to prosper because they were able to put together an information bundle - news, classifieds, sports, stock prices - that they were able to pay for with ad revenues. People had to buy the whole bundle to get the pieces they wanted. The problem now is that the newspapers are being unbundled. Most people don’t want to buy a whole newspaper, they just want to go to the story that they see on the website that interests them. It is no longer possible to get advertisers to underwrite the cost of the bundle. This means that no one is paying for the foreign bureau in Baghdad, for instance, but in a more pernicious way, the very stories that are now promoted by the news editors are the ones that attract the most clicks and hence the most advertisers. These often tend to be the lighter stories that do not delve deeply into issues that have longer-term consequences.

So the newspaper transformation revolution continues. This is by no means the first. Revolutions are messy. As Shirky notes, it is easy to see the Before and the After. What is hard to see is the During. He mentions the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein who wrote a book entitled The Printing Press as an Agent of Change which describes what happened during the Gutenberg transformation to the printed page:

The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

Eventually, of course, a new equilibrium was established and it easy to forget the queasiness that occurred during the transformation period. It is always this way. Nicholas Carr closes his book with the following:

All technology change is generational change. The full power and consequences of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins. As the older generations die, they take with them the knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains. It’s in this way that progress covers its tracks, perpetually refreshing the illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be.

[Image from Wikipedia: Statue in Brookgreen Gardens, Pawleys Island, SC]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Innovation - Not?

Businessweek’s economist, Mike Mandel, recently gave a presentation in which he put forth the contrary proposition that over the last decade the U.S. has failed at innovation. You can read the short version here at Phil Nussmaum’s OnDesign Businessweek Blog. The nut of Mandel’s argument is that by the economic measures of stock prices and wages, the last ten years have either been flat or even declining despite all the internet and biotech activity. The only business that really seemed to flourish was finance and we all know where that ended up. Mandel remains cautiously optimistic that we will return to prosperity in the medium term but as they say, “Past performance is no guarantee of future returns”.

I think we all sense that we are living through a time that in which we are undergoing a fundamental shift that is probably even greater than that which took place in the Industrial Revolution. Revolutions are unpredictable beasts that tend to get out of hand. The impact of a revolution is rarely foreseeable from within it. But a new culture will emerge out of this one as surely as the rise of the corporation and mass production rose from the last one. Utopian visions have always been a part of fundamental technology shifts. And they have almost always been wrong. The new culture brings not only progress but a new set of problems.

Mandel is pinning his hopes for recovery on the Usual Suspects of biotech, green energy, and the web. That may prove to be right because changes don’t simply come out of thin air. They have long incubation periods in which the emerging future looks like an adolescent that is noisy and best ignored. But one thing is clear, whatever happens it will come about because it provides a more economical way to meet people’s needs.

I have been reading an interesting book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Big Switch. Carr writes about the parallels between the impact of electric utilities of the 20th century and the emergence of “computing utilities” in the 21st century. Both dramatically reduce the cost and improve the reliability of a basic technology. The economies of scale that come with centralizing the technology in a utility make a whole new way of living possible. And those same economies make the emergence of the new technology inevitable.

So Carr would agree with Mandel that betting on the internet, or more precisely, computing as a utility is one way in which we will see innovation in the future. Green energy, even though it may be the way out of climate change, has to find a way in which it is the most cost effective solution. Maybe that happens through tax policy but if it is not the lowest cost provider, the market will choose a cheaper path. It always does.

The same might be true for pharmaceuticals and biotechs. The cost of discovering and producing a new drug is just too high. The problem that Big Pharma faces (and what is driving the mega mergers of the last decade) is a diminishing pipeline of good candidate drugs. When the costs for discovery and development are approaching a billion dollars, it is just too expensive to be sustainable. So what is needed here is a way to reduce those costs. Some think that the increasingly sophisticated use of mathematical models of biological processes, the so-called “in silico” biology will be the answer. Tests can be done in a computer much cheaper than they can be performed on a bench or at the bedside. But their relevance is only as good as the model itself.

We need much more innovation to break free of this recession. And the innovation needs to give us real results, not just the financial illusion of innovation. We are all depending on it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

I wrote yesterday about a wonderful art exhibit at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. I quoted John Eckblad, the collector who provided the prints for the exhibition as saying:

Today, with our economy and environment under siege, it’s useful to remember that crisis begets invention. When we seem closest to capitulation, the seeds of our next reality have already been sown. And, we need not wonder for long how our new realities will look and feel. Once again, artists will be there to both document and interpret.

Saturday, there was an article in the New York Times about just this thing. The article by journalists Matt Richtel and Jenna Wortham described how the recession with its resulting layoffs was forcing a whole new way of entrepreneurial activity from younger people who couldn’t find work. The article quotes Mark V. Cannice, executive director of entrepreneurship programs at the University of South San Francisco as saying:

If there is a silver lining, the large-scale downsizing from major companies will release a lot of new entrepreneurial talent and ideas — scientists, engineers, business folks now looking to do other things,” Mr. Cannice said. “It’s a Darwinian unleashing of talent into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The technology enabler that is releasing a wave of entrepreneurial activity is the web. Whether people envision starting a new dot com business or whether they are using the web to market their physical products or locate suppliers, the internet is making low-cost innovation possible. It is tempting to think that this is somehow a unique feature of the technology of our time. But every new technology wave has had the same impact on releasing innovation. The railroads with their resultant lowering of transportation costs stimulated decades of new business. Montgomery Ward and Sears both developed in the late 19th Century as a means to cost-effectively provide retail goods to rural people. Both of these catalog businesses were located at the center of the U.S. rail hub in Chicago. They were literally the Amazons of their day, enabled by a technology network that made the business even possible.

It’s going to be interesting to see what emerges out of this new wave of “forced entrepreneurship” (Mark Cannice’s phrase). Lots of it will be local and hence not visible to most of us. Many of the startups will be short-lived. But they will have not only allowed their owners to survive, they will help the economy and will be the route for many to what amounts to a free MBA through the School of Hard Knocks. These entrepreneurs will acquire invaluable knowledge that will serve them all their lives. As Eckblad said, “The seed of our next reality have already been sown.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

At the Heart of Progress: An Exhibition

The Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill has a wonderful exhibition entitled “At the Heart of Progress: Coal, Iron, and Steam Since 1750”. The exhibit if built around a collection of engravings and prints from the John P. Eckblad Collection. Eckland has been collecting images of industrial art for over 30 years. The exhibit does a remarkably good job of showing how artists and illustrators have captured both the positive and negative aspects of the Industrial Revolution. The exhibition has a well-written and beautifully illustrated catalog for a cost of $15. If you can’t get to Chapel Hill, you can obtain the catalog from the museum. The catalog does a great job of providing insightful commentary on the forces in play from the early Industrial Revolution through the 20th Century. Take this passage for example:

Coal, iron, and steam power came together in a complicated triangular relationship. As ironworks increased demand for coal, coal mines were dug ever deeper, and the dangers of flooding made pumping apparatus a necessity... Iron demanded coal, coal demanded steam, steam demanded more and better iron, but this circle of progress was soon sending out branches. Coke, the key to iron-smelting with coal, was produced by baking coal in ovens to increase its carbon content by vaporizing other components. The by-product, coal-gas, was soon found to have its own uses as a fuel and a source of light.

The images in the collection follow the advancement of industry into the 20th Century and focus not just on the technology but also on the human side of the drama: the plight of the workers and the conflicting forces between employment and the danger and degradation of the work.

Eckblad seems to be, at heart, a technology optimist. In an introductory statement, he encapsulates the relevance of this historic look back on today’s events:

Today, with our economy and environment under siege, it’s useful to remember that crisis begets invention. When we seem closest to capitulation, the seeds of our next reality have already been sown. And, we need not wonder for long how our new realities will look and feel. Once again, artists will be there to both document and interpret.

Technology, like art, is just another dimension of the human drive to create. That art should interpret technology is only a natural part of our desire to understand the forces that we release with our innate creativity.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Heights

Technology changes and yet some things stay the same. Take the location of towers as an example. Usually, towers are located on the highest point in the area to afford the longest unobstructed line of sight possible. It doesn’t matter whether the purpose of the tower is visual observation like you find in old fire towers or electronic communication for the ever-increasing wireless networks. A clear view is important. It is a matter of simple economics. The fewest number of towers to do the job is the cheapest way to go.

Most of the old forest fire towers are now abandoned. We have better ways to do the job. We can even spot forest fires from space satellite imagery. But still, towers and heights seem to attract us. The towers that haven’t been torn down are fenced in and the bottom ladders have been removed to keep people off of them. But there are always people who disregard the barriers and find a way to climb the old towers anyway. We are drawn to high places. Some of this is the spirit that makes people climb mountains: the challenge of the climb. But we are wired to value the view. Maybe it is primal, a survival skill. The longest view lets us see any approaching danger. Whatever the reason, we still put a premium on the view.

The modern version of the mountain top, the premium view, is the top-floor corner office in the high-rise office tower. This is usually reserved for the senior person in the organizational pecking order. People work like dogs to get into the corner office and they relish the view when they get there. Views are symbolic of status and power. I once had a corner office (only on the second floor) but it looked out on a beautiful pond. I mourned the day I had to move out of that office. I hardly had a person come see me who didn’t comment on the view. It gave me a certain amount of organizational status irrespective of my actual position.

Property with a view commands a premium. Whether it is a mountain top of ocean-side, we will pay real money for the long, unobstructed view. If an area is being developed, the shore and the hillside always bring the highest price. People go to extraordinary lengths to build their homes in precarious places just for the view. You can hardly go a year without seeing a California hillside home either burn in a brush fire or slide down the mountain in a rainstorm. And then the owners immediately rebuild in the same location.

We are creatures with limited capabilities and we value ways to extend our inborn assets. Whether it is a view for our sight, communication networks for our hearing, or transportation systems for our legs, we are have a natural affinity for that which extends us. Technology extends us. Our insatiable desire to transcend our limitations drives technology. I wonder sometimes whether technology tickles the same part of the brain that lets us enjoy a sunset on the ocean shore? Are we neurologically wired to seek the innovative for the same reason we seek the sunset? Maybe we’ll find that answer at a future sunrise.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Next Innovative Hardware Industry?

In my last blog, I was musing about the electric car. The early history of an industry intrigues me. The automobile industry seems very much like the early history of personal computers: lots of tinkerers working in their garages (in both cases) to bring out machines that were initially more like toys than mainstream products. Early automobiles were thought to be the playthings of the rich, not practical transportation. And early personal computers were the toys of the geeks, not day-to-day information appliances.

What is similar between these two industries is that anyone who was a little savvy in the technology could experiment and build a new machine. The earliest pioneers didn’t need a lot of capital to get started. Much of the technology could be hand-crafted right in the garage or purchased as components from other sources. In the case of the automobile, the first focus for the individual innovator was usually on the engine. Ford hand-built a working gasoline engine before he attempted to build his Quadracycle. He could buy wheels and tires from bicycle shops and seats from buggy makers. Early personal computer makers could buy the integrated circuit components from suppliers. They couldn’t buy the assembler language software code that turned their digital circuits into useful devices. The code was homegrown and in many ways “the engine” of their devices.

Economists like to describe the automobile and the personal computer as industries that had low barriers to entry. The field was wide open to anyone with an inventive spirit. Patents were few. Large, entrenched players were non-existent. The buggy makers and railroads were no more competition for the automobile than IBM and mainframe manufacturers were competitors to the personal computer makers. What results in early industries like this is an exploding number of entrants. Hundreds of would-be innovators jump in when they see the early interest beginning to develop around the pioneer businesses. Of course, this can’t last. Darwinian selection starts to weed out the weak, the players without a competitive advantage. After a decade or two, consolidation reduces the competitors to a few companies who are now competing on price, scale and efficiency.

These sorts of industries are the complete opposite of capital-intensive industries like railroads, electric utility companies, or even cable television companies. These are all networks and by their very nature networks take lots of investment simply to get to the stage where they provide any value at all. It doesn’t do any good to have a train without tracks or a home cable box without the copper or fiber cable. These industries have a very different kind of birth. Their parents are capitalists and investors more than inventors and tinkerers. Thomas Edison invented the first electric distribution system but it was limited as a business by the geography it could power. It took Samuel Insull, a protégé of Edison’s, and a shrewd businessman to create the first modern electric utility, Commonwealth Edison in Chicago.

In this current economic crisis the government is proposing to put a large sum of money into repairing and replacing our infrastructure. Having been in the Twin Cities when the I-35 Bridge collapsed, I can confirm how much investing in our infrastructure is needed. Besides fixing the highways and bridges, there is also a lot of money set aside for high-speed rail. This is also very much needed. Anyone who has enjoyed the rail networks of Europe or Japan can easily see the lamentable condition of American passenger rail. But, I would argue, we also need to set funds aside to identify and fund the hundreds of startups that could flourish around the next automobile or personal computer industry. These bring out the innovations that spill over to create thousands of jobs and even local manufacturing.

The internet and the dot coms have certainly followed the garage model. Thousands of software programmers have created everything from Google to the software in our cellphones. These have been terrific businesses and more are needed. But while these have done much for innovation, they have not had a manufacturing component. Maybe this is where Green comes in. The industries I dream about could be in solar panels, wind energy, and other forms of Green technology. Biotech and Nanotech will certainly continue to have their strong place in advancing cutting-edge businesses but these businesses are both capital intensive as well as patent intensive. No, what I am thinking of are industries that are within the reach of the person in the garage, the person with a passion to create who doesn’t have access to millions of dollars of financial backing. I would be willing to bet that there is yet another nascent automobile or personal computer industry out there just waiting to be born. As a country, we need it now more than ever.

[Images: Apple IIe Personal Computer and Wind Turbine from Wikipedia.]

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Electric Cars: Deja Vu All Over Again

I recently came across this excerpt:

Gasoline prices are rising rapidly. Nevertheless, more and more internal combustion vehicles are being sold and there are fears of a gas shortage. Experts predict that prices will continue to rise since proven reserves of petroleum are limited. Electric vehicle enthusiasts urge more emphasis on electric cars and trucks, since these will become more competitive as gas prices rise. They also point out the nonpolluting aspects of their technology. Business and government are being urged to push the electric vehicle, while conferences and associations are formed to coordinate this work. The electric enthusiasts are impatient that more is not being done to support electric vehicles, but they are convinced that such support must grow in the future. The year is 1912.

I found that quote in the opening paragraph of an article written in 1980 by Richard H. Schallenburg for the electrical engineering journal, IEEE Transactions on Education. Almost a century has passed but the story remains virtually the same. What intrigues me about the story of electric vehicles is why, after a hundred years, they remain a tiny minority of the cars and trucks on the road? How tiny? In 2008 (which was a disaster for the automotive industry), 13.2 million cars and light trucks were sold in the United States. Of these, 281,846 were hybrids (source: Electric Drive Transportation Association). Of the hybrids, 56 percent were Toyota Priuses. That means that hybrids make up just over two percent of sales last year. One might make the case that a decade earlier hybrid cars were non-existent so selling 281 thousand of them last year looks pretty good. And it is. But the internal combustion engine remains the (black) gold standard as it has for a hundred years.

The automobile has always been a machine that appealed to more than functionality. The automobile was never simply an alternative to the horse or the electric trolley. The automobile represented freedom, adventure, the harnessing of power. In the very early days of the automobile when it was not clear whether steam, electric, or internal combustion engines would be the power source for vehicles, cars started to be marketed for city driving where roads were better and distances shorter. Electrics made a lot of sense in this market. But the electrics were relatively slow compared to gasoline engines, the batteries were heavy and unreliable, and the infrastructure to recharge the cars was not readily available. Despite the limitations, automakers tried to find the niches to which the quiet, clean power of the electrics would appeal most. Rudi Volti in a Fall 1990 Invention and Technology magazine article wrote:

As with steam cars, the technical limitations are usually blamed, but the electric’s failure has also to do with the nature of the car’s customers and manufacturers. In fact, because of the users that it attracted, the electric’s very virtues became part of its undoing. Its reliability, silence, cleanliness, and ease of operation endeared it particularly to women drivers, who were also less likely than men to be put off by its limitations. A 1915 magazine article extolled the electric’s appeal to a woman: “She knows that it fulfills all of the demands of her daily routine of calling, shopping, and pleasure seeking. She knows that she likes to run it because there is a certain charm in its simplicity of operation and control—a sort of mild fascination. She knows, too, that she can step into its beautifully cushioned and brocaded interior, enjoy every minute of her ride and arrive at her destination as fresh and spotless as when she started.”

Despite the advertised advantages of electrics, the lower cost, economy, and higher speed of gasoline engines allowed cars to be driven longer distances over rough terrains unsuitable to the electrics. And the infrastructure was being rapidly built by the oil companies to make gasoline readily available almost everywhere. Cars became differentiated on speed, cost, and power. The automobile became not only a conveyance but a part of the very infrastructure of American life: the interstate highway, the suburbs... and the resultant traffic jams, pollution, and highway mayhem.

The current collapse of the automobile market is creating terrible stress on people all over the country. But perhaps out of this dark period we may finally move forward into an era where the newer technologies will be sustained. In 1912, the hope for electric vehicles was the specter of increasingly expensive gasoline. There may yet be another miracle which keeps oil prices low but we are running out of rabbits to pull out of our hats. The current world economic crisis seems like as good a time as any to finally move to a new generation of automotive technology.

[Image from Wikipedia showing Thomas Edison in 1913 in front of an electric car.]