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Electric Drive vs. Internal Combustion - the Hundred Years War
Submitted by Dan Sweeney on Fri, 2008-08-01 21:41.
The prospect of permanently elevated fuel prices, which was dismissed by almost all energy analysts until just this year, is now engaging the imaginations of the public at large and not just a few dystopian thinkers. And the implications for the transportation sector are both dire and fundamental. If fuel prices continue to ascend, we could be seeing a return of electric traction in personal transportation after its nearly complete disappearance back in the nineteen twenties. We could also be seeing a rather bleaker future for the alternative fuels industry than many of us had hoped for.
In order to determine the likelihood of this eventuality I am going to examine transitions in transportation technologies and markets that occurred in the past. Previous articles germane to this area are included in the section of this Website devoted to technical and scientific developments, and this piece will build on the insights expressed in these earlier considerations; only here the focus will be on the determinants of ascendancy and dominance, that is, the basic preconditions which decisively influence the outcome of competitions between and among modes of transportation.
Victories that Weren't
Electrically powered vehicles have vied continuously with those utilizing heat engines, i.e. internal and external combustion, for a period extending back into the eighteen seventies. The struggle has not been nearly as one sided as the general wisdom holds it to have been.
The second half of the nineteenth, the high Victorian Age, began as an age of steam. Water power was still extensively used to power industrial equipment in America, England, France, and Japan, but steam was becoming dominant in manufacturing applications.
In addition, steam was absolutely dominant in overland transportation systems in developed nations with both passengers and freight traveling by rail, and to a much lesser extent, by river steamboat, a form of transportation which represents the first really extensive use of steam power, and which had been the reigning high speed transportation system in the United States from 1800 until the 1830s. Interestingly, the age of the river steamer was also the age of biofuel. Most American steamboats used wood to fire their boilers, wood which they obtained from pioneer farmers clearing the forests of the Eastern United States. Steamboat captains who wanted higher boiler pressures generally saturated the firewood with lard, another biofuel.
Steam was extensively used in ocean going ships in the latter half of the nineteenth century as well, but most continued to carry sailing rigs up until the 1890s. That was because dual propellers and engines were only introduced in 1888, and before that a ship without sails was crippled in the event of an engine failure or broken propeller.
Electricity was first used in transportation in Germany in the 1870s when the earliest electric street rail system was built. Other such systems followed in the U.S. in the seventies and eighties, but they were not at first successful. Rather, the leading innovative street rail system of the eighties was the cable car, for which some 26 systems were built in various U.S. cities. Electric trolley systems did not enjoy real success until 1888 when Richmond, Virginia set up an essentially modern system designed by Westinghouse.
By 1894 hundreds of similar systems were operating all across the country in one of the most rapid transportation revolutions ever experienced anywhere. Westinghouse also introduced full sized electric locomotives, the first appearing in the mid nineties, but such vehicles won only limited acceptance in the U.S.
Another very early use of electric propulsion occurred in naval warfare. Electrically powered Whitehead torpedoes began to be adopted by Great Power navies in the eighties and lead to huge increases in armor plating in battleships and also to the development of entirely new types of naval vessels including torpedo boats, destroyers, and submarines. The last was among the earliest of vehicles to adopt electric propulsion.
The first successful naval submarine was the Swedish Nordenfeldt which ran on steam power. Very high boiler pressures were built up on the surface, allowing the vessels to run for literally hours when submerged. But this was a cumbersome arrangement, and navies wanted subs that could stay down indefinitely. The answer was electric drive which was first successfully used by Spain in the late eighties, and, very shortly thereafter, in France and in Russia. All such first generation electric submarines relied solely on battery power and thus had very limited cruising ranges.
In the mid nineties the French navy introduced the first essentially modern submarine which used an internal combustion engine running on kerosene to charge the sub's batteries which provided for underwater electric drive. This system was subsequently copied by all major navies and is still in use today.
Electric automobiles first appeared in the late eighties and became fairly commonplace in France in the early nineties. They debuted in the U.S. a few years later where they won considerable acceptance as city vehicles. In the year 1900 both electric and steam cars were more numerous than gasoline automobiles in the U.S., though a mere year later, gasoline cars had overtaken their rivals.
Early electric cars tended to be modeled after electric streetcars, some of which ran on batteries rather than overhead wires or third rails. Thus they were an adaptation of a type of vehicle which was phenomenally successful in public transit, and of which thousands of examples were operating worldwide before the first gasoline automobile was even built in the United States. In this context we have to consider electricity not internal combustion to be the rising form of motive power at the end of the nineteenth century.
Interurban Electric Trolleys - the Incumbent Technology in Local Transportation
Electric trolley car systems, also known as interurbans though they seldom connected cities, are now as much a part of history as the stagecoach, but they operated within living memory. I rode in Los Angeles Red Cars, one of the last such systems, in the nineteen fifties. Interestingly, Los Angeles, pre-eminently the city of the automobile, had one of the most extensive street rail systems in the world.
The importance of the trolleys can scarcely be over-emphasized. Every city of any size wanted to have a system in the nineties, and by 1900 they were everywhere. And, what is now largely forgotten, they drove the American market for private housing, and, to a considerable extent, the entire manufacturing economy of the world's premier industrial power. Owners of electrical utilities frequently owned the trolley lines as well, and they built rails out into the countryside around major cities where they collaborated with real estate developers to build the first modern bedroom communities. Sears & Roebuck, the premier department store operator and direct mail sales organization, sold tens of thousands of prefabricated houses into this new suburban market and then sold the owners the electrical appliances and home furnishings to use in their new homes. Housing, transportation, and the idea of a public electrical utility conjoined in a powerful synergy which was further strengthened by new financial instruments designed to foster home ownership and new investment strategies that encouraged the growth of electrical utilities.
Electric trolleys vanquished their chief advanced technology rival, the cable car, and supplanted the low tech incumbent, namely, the horse or mule drawn street rail systems which were deployed in hundreds of American cities by the 1870s, but were unacceptably slow and contributed unduly to noxious accumulation of horse manure in public streets. Most cities were glad to see the horse cars go while they enthusiastically adopted electric rail systems as the last word in material progress.
There were, it must be noted, a number of street rail systems using steam locomotives, but steam engines do not scale downward very effectively, and such systems were inefficient. They also produced large amounts of soot and coal smoke, and were considered objectionable everywhere they were extant. Most disappeared abruptly in the nineties with the coming of the trolleys.
But while the electric trolley flourished, the electric automobile never achieved solid success. The weight of the batteries required to provide adequate or barely adequate cruising range was such as to burst the tires and demolish the suspensions of early electric cars. Improvements occurred over time, but not so rapidly as was the case with gasoline cars, and while electric vehicles enjoyed some successes in niche markets like taxicabs, refuse trucks, and fire trucks, by the first decade of the twentieth century momentum was clearly with the internal combustion segment. Steam and electricity were both rapidly eclipsed, and the real competition was between the electric trolley and the gasoline automobile, not between gasoline and electric cars.
So why did the street rail companies who were allied with such powerful economic interests lose out to the upstart gasoline automobile industry which initially had incomparably poorer resources? The answer, as I hope to demonstrate, may give us some clues and insights as to the outcome of the current competition between gasoline and electric automobiles.
Dispelling Some Myths
I'll begin by noting that in Europe electric street rails were not eclipsed by automobiles. Light rail systems proliferated and evolved throughout Europe and never went away.
In our own country, however, the triumph of the automobile was decisive and complete. Light rail systems would appear again later in the twentieth century, but there was essentially no continuity with earlier systems except in the special case of the New York subway system.
Many on the political left subscribe to conspiracy theories regarding this transition, and believe that the automobile, rubber, and petroleum manufacturers colluded to destroy the urban light rail systems. Such collusive activities did in fact take place, but they occurred long after the street rail systems were already in precipitate decline. They certainly did not occur in the first decade of the twentieth century when the electric utilities and street rail systems had far superior economic resources, and the automobile manufacturers were struggling to survive.
So what factors played in the decline and permitted the gasoline automobile to gain ascendancy?
The speculations that follow are certainly not the last word on the topic, but they do serve to establish a framework for assessing not just this competition between transportation modes but all such competitions involving incumbent and replacement technologies.
Automobiles against the Interurbans
The electric interurbans had many of the earmarks of a truly successful insurgent transportation technology. They entrained other powerful industries such as housing construction, public utilities, and the manufacture of home furnishings and appliances, and they allowed literally millions of American workers to travel to jobs in the inner city while living in safe, hygienic neighborhoods in the suburbs. Moreover, the whole, vast interlocking system reached its final form very quickly—in other words, it really was a revolution. Ironically, that may have been what doomed it, a notion I'll explore at some length in a later section.
But first I'll describe the overall ecosystem within which the interurbans were situated because this ultimately determined their early, runaway success and their later abject failure.
The key element in that ecosystem was the streetcar suburb, the ultimate destinationn of the streetcar lines, and, as is the case with almost all modes of transport, the destination is at least as important as the vehicle for getting there.
Streetcar suburbs were pitched to a specific socioeconomic class, the better off blue or white collar worker employed in the inner city, what would later be referred to as the lower middle class, and their early success and ultimate failure rested upon a range of market responses on the part of this class, particularly the desire of its members to own homes within clean, and often ethnically homogenous neighborhoods, neighborhoods which would resemble the traditional small towns which served America's prosperous Northeaster farming communities.
Unfortunately, they were something of a come on, a false promise. The suburbs tended to be constructed quickly, and tended to lack much of what people expected a township to provide, and in this respect they resembled later low cost housing tracts such as the Levitowns. They were deficient in shops, churches, recreational facilities, schools, and social centers, and they were limited in their physical extent because the rail line passing through them did not provide for internal transportation. As far as most workers were concerned, however, they beat living in the inner city, particularly the filthy, crime ridden working class neighborhoods of Boston, New York, Chicago, and other American metropolises.
Home loans to buy the prefabricated houses in the streetcar suburbs were often provided by the realtors on an ad hoc basis, and suggested without resembling the federally ensured home loans which permitted the vast suburban expansion which occurred after World War II. But they were seldom backed by major banks and were virtually never insured.
Enthusiastically embraced by American workers beguiled by the dream of home ownership, streetcar suburbs proved less attractive after about 1910, and few new ones were constructed. Most of the construction occurred over a period of about a dozen years from the early nineties to the middle of the next decade. Not coincidentally, street rail construction largely ceased about the same time, though some existing systems were extended.
Streetcar suburbs were not remembered with much affection by those Americans--nearly all deceased today—who grew up in them. They were full of what is known in the parlance of today as "starter homes", only in that time period the great mass of purchasers were never able to trade up, nor even to expand the houses they had purchased since the houses were closely packed together on small lots. Almost half of such homes were at least partially constructed by the owners, an arduous process performed by the man of the family and perhaps a few friends or relatives in summer evenings after the conclusion of the ten hour work shift. Meanwhile, the family literally camped out on the mostly vacant lot. Normally what would happen was that the hapless home constructor would throw up his hands after several weeks of brutally hard work and attempt to secure a further loan to hire a professional builder to finish the job. With luck the house might be sufficiently completed to occupy before winter. Since many of these suburbs were constructed outside of Northern cities such as Boston or Chicago, that was an important consideration.
There were also natural limits to the size of streetcar suburbs which in turn imposed natural limits on the scope of the streetcar lines themselves. Interurban lines, like all forms of railroads, were most profitable in areas of high density housing. The first streetcar suburbs located near the urban core soon reached high density, but as the suburbs extended out into the countryside, housing density inevitably decreased, and more and more rail lines including laterals were required to serve fewer customers. Many of the street rail systems were in financial trouble by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.
Another major problem with the streetcar suburbs was their vulnerability to fire. Most consisted of wood frame houses packed close together, and many of the new municipalities lacked fire departments. Generally, the houses and their furnishings were uninsured, and so the unfortunate owner, encumbered with debt from the purchase of the house, could find himself with nothing but a lot full of cinders and an onerous bank note, and no prospects of ever obtaining a second house. And, by double irony, the cause of the frequent fires often lay with the electrical system of the house, a system meant to bring the wonders of modernity to the American family. Exposed wiring was the rule rather than the exception, and electrical codes were nonexistent.
Still other factors conspired to undermine the alliance between electric traction and the American manufacturing and electrical utility industries.
The consumer culture embraced by the lower middle classes at the turn of the last century was limited. Families had relatively little discretionary income, and while electrical appliances like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dish washers, and electric refrigerators had all been invented by that time, they were priced out of reach of the mass market. Therefore electrification itself began to falter when it failed to find applications beyond electric lighting and the streetcars themselves.
An even more fundamental but far from obvious problem was the lack of major stakeholders in heavy manufacturing. Whereas both the railroads and automobiles consumed a major portion of America's total industrial output and fostered the growth of other major industries such as iron and steel production, electrical component manufacturing, glass, rubber, and textiles, the interurbans, after impressive early growth, never grew extensive enough to require vast inputs of raw materials or manufactured parts. Westinghouse made a lot of money off interurbans as did Edison Electric, but who were the second tier manufacturers?
A further limitation of the interurbans was their lack of versatility. Unlike conventional railways, the interurbans were not adapted to carrying freight, and they were almost never linked together in trains. Nor were there private Pullmans, or armored express mail cars, or any of the specialized vehicles and services provided by major regional railroads. The interurbans were a single purpose form of transport, and unlike the automobile, could not be adapted for use in fire fighting, police work, refuse collection, package delivery, or any of the multitude of tasks performed by commercial and public service trucks utilizing automotive technology.
When a flourishing mass consumer culture finally emerged in the nineteen twenties it was based upon automotive ownership and a new kind of suburb made possible by the automobile. The streetcar suburb, the crowning achievement of the late Victorian age, seemed hopelessly antiquated after a mere thirty years of existence.
If the ultimate failure of the American interurban seems fairly comprehensible, the success of the automobile, specifically the gasoline powered automobile, wants explaining. And to provide an explanation is the aim of the following section.
Early Automobiles – an Errant Market Trajectory
The modern automobile was essentially invented in France and Germany, emerging at the end of the decade of the eighteen eighties. The first production automobile was the Serpollet, a steam car named after its inventor, the Frenchman, Leon Serpollet. It was introduced in 1888.
Serpollet was a technical genius with patents and inventions in many different fields. His principal focus, however, was on adapting the steam engine to the realm of personal transport.
He did a remarkably good job. The steam engine he developed in the late eighties utilized multiple flash boilers which could raise steam in seconds and could support sustained acceleration, always a problem with steam power plants in cars. It utilized modern poppet valves like a gasoline engine and had a crankshaft enclosed in an oil bath, again a modern feature. It was simple yet sophisticated, and was extremely reliable and user friendly.
Serpollet licensed the design to Peugeot, a diversified manufacturer that was then promoting the new safety bicycle and would shortly become the pre-eminent manufacturer of the same. Peugeot brought out a steam powered three wheeler in 1889 utilizing the Serpollet engine after garnering much favorable publicity at the Paris Exhibition that same year. But a year later in 1890 Peugeot abandoned the Serpollet engine in favor of an internal combustion engine from Benz in Germany. Peugeot would never again use steam.
The reasons behind Peugeot management's decision are difficult to discern today. The Benz power plant was far less reliable than the Peugeot, and indeed reasonable reliability would not be achieved for another fifteen years. But Peugeot was and remained the only major manufacturer to espouse the automobile until the twentieth century, and its advocacy of internal combustion carried weight.
Through the course of the nineties France maintained its position as the automotive capital of the world, and most French cars used either steam or electricity, not gasoline, and steam exerted overall dominance in the marketplace. De Dion, of auto racing fame, competed vigorously with Serpollet in the steam sector, but Serpollet engines were far superior to de Dions, and also to those of the Locomobile and Stanley steamers in the United States. As a matter of interest, only one steam powered design ever challenged the Serpollet in the area of performance, the far more complex steam engine developed by the American inventor Abner Doble in the teens of the century. In fact the Serpollet was so reliable that it was seriously proposed for use in aircraft.
So why did the buying public reject the perfected Serpollet steam engine and settle on the still evolving and highly problematic internal combustion engine?
In fact the company Serpollet founded continued to build and sell cars until almost 1920 (Serpollet himself died in 1907), but it was not a real force in the automotive industry, and Serpollet's better product failed to find a mass market. So why was that?
I think one reason was that the Serpollet design was a proprietary, patent protected, closed platform, one that was of no interest to the young entrepreneurs who ultimately established the automotive industry as a going concern. Serpollet could only have succeeded with his design if he had had the financial resources, manufacturing prowess, and marketing acumen of a Henry Ford, and he did not—none of the European manufacturers did. The success of the Serpollet engine depended upon the success of Serpollet's own company. It wasn't a design that was available to anyone else.
The entrepreneurs and upstarts who really launched the automotive industry seized upon the internal combustion engine because it was an open platform, and, somewhat ironically, because it was imperfect and thus susceptible to continual incremental improvements. Gasoline engines were very amenable to tinkering and improvised enhancements, and most of the key patents had already expired by the time auto manufacturers were ready to adopt the device. The possibilities for further development seemed virtually limitless.
Not so with steam. Serpollet and Doble were actually among the last great inventors to extend the possibilities of the reciprocating steam engine, and they did so at a time when the design of such engines was no longer engaging younger engineers. By 1900 when the gasoline engine began to replace steam in the automotive realm, steam piston engines were also losing ground in other key markets including shipping, farm equipment, and electrical generating plants. Only on the railroad was the position of such engines still secure, and that market would be lost as well in less than fifty years. Steam was the past, not the future.
What about the electrical motor, the power plant under consideration here? Electric traction was certainly an area where much innovation was taking place, but electric cars were not improving nearly so rapidly as their internal combustion counterparts, and electricity had not captured the imaginations of the scores of would be automobile moguls who were striving to found car manufacturers at the turn of the century. If you read Horseless Age, the lively industry trade journal launched in the late nineties, you'll see it's all about gasoline engines. Electric car companies were actually getting more investment dollars in 1900, but they weren't attracting the car nuts and grease monkeys. Guys who were passionate about cars wanted to work on gas burners.
Moreover, electric motors were failing to establish themselves in other areas of transport such as small boats, motorcycles, commercial trucks, buses, and aircraft. Nor were they used to any extent in earth moving or construction equipment or in farm equipment. And the lat point was crucial. In America Midwestern farmers were the most important group of early adopters of the automobile. The fact that they began buying gasoline powered tractors almost simultaneously was significant.
Electric cars were not in harmony with the do it yourself ethos of early American motorists either. While electric vehicles were relatively low maintenance, when they did break down, they tended to require major repairs and often the replacement of the battery pack which was extremely costly. Next to no electric vehicle owners attempted to maintain their own vehicles let alone modify them.
Moreover, early electric cars did not hold up well under rough handling. Their extreme bulk made them unsuitable for rutted country roads, and the battery cases could and did crack during forays into the countryside. Recharging was also a problem in the hinterlands whereas gasoline could usually be gotten somewhere.
Perhaps even more significant was the market positioning of electric car as a town car, a horseless carriage aimed at the genteel motorist. Gasoline automobiles, on the other hand, appealed to the adventurous members of both sexes, the quintessential early adopters and trend setters. They represented both a technological and social revolution, and they were embraced by the young and intrepid and at first were pre-eminently recreational vehicles. But no one seems to have driven an electric for sport, and no one drove one across a state or the nation to demonstrate the potential of the automobile. All of the pace setting journeys of the early years of the century were made with gasoline cars. They generated the excitement, not the electric cars.
A final factor had to do with the behavior of the manufacturers themselves. Auto makers in the late nineties and the first decade of the twentieth century were almost all young, technically sophisticated, non-risk aversive entrepreneurs not terribly different in temperament from the individuals who launched the personal computing revolution three quarters of a century later. Everyone knew everyone else in the business and kept abreast of competitors' activities and decisions. And to an amazing degree the industry moved in lockstep, exhibiting a weird sort of hive mind. Early designs were all more or less failures, and the industry acting in consort would try first one design and then another, completely abandoning the failed approach without looking back. Evolution only slowed after 1909 when the automobile could finally be said to have achieved mass acceptance in the U.S.
The scores of manufacturers suddenly and decisively rejected both steam and electricity en masse in the year 1900, that is, before the American auto industry had even proven itself viable. And there were no second thoughts. Electric cars never got so much as hearing again for almost a hundred years.
A Review of the Determinants of Success and Failure
Modes of transportation that succeed tend to have the following characteristics:
. They entrain a host of supporting industries and draw stakeholders from among the most power industrial magnates within the manufacturing economy.
. They are—and this in counterintuitive—relatively imperfect and undeveloped at the time of their emergence into the market, and rest upon technological bases that are susceptible to continued improvement and refinement.
. They are associated with new patterns of housing and settlement and new relationships to work and leisure activities.
. They are versatile and the core technology is applicable to a multitude of specialized applications, activities which themselves support overall economic growth and development.
Modes of transportation that fail tend to have almost opposing characteristics.
. They are constructed of traditional rather than new building materials and fail to win the support of emerging mass producers of raw materials.
. They are single purpose.
. They utilize existing infrastructure and pathways and often involve stagnant technologies.
. They fail to exert transformational effects upon the society as a whole.
Of Markets, Manufacturing, and Customer Aspirations
The gasoline automobile initially attracted customers as much because of what it represented as for what it really was. But it only became a mass market success and an indispensable part of American life because it leant itself to the advanced, mechanized mass production techniques which were already emerging in the late nineteenth century. Both factors are almost equally important.
Let's start with the driving and ownership experience as the basis of customer aspirations.
The potential customer for the early automobile had more than likely experienced its predecessor, the trolley car. If he were born in the middle eighteen eighties in modest circumstances, as were many automotive early adopters, his parents might have moved to a streetcar suburb when he was a child. In the normal course of things, he would have left secondary school without completing it and begun working while still a teenager. He would probably continue to reside in the house of his parents and would ride back and forth to work in the city on a streetcar.
So what did that streetcar represent to our alert young man? A ride to a job that he probably hated, and then a ride back at night when he was thoroughly exhausted by his labors. That was his experience of the interurbans.
Then sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century our young man had his first ride in an automobile. By this time he was taking night courses and preparing himself to look for skilled work which would take him out of the factory where he worked beside his father. Maybe the car owner was a manager at the factory who'd taken a liking to him. Maybe the owner even let him take the wheel for a moment. Whatever the circumstances, the youth made a decision. He would acquire the money to purchase an automobile. He would have one of his own.
And he eventually did just a couple of years later. He bought it slightly used and he learned how to maintain it and he learned how to impress girls with it. And he spent many happy hours on Sunday afternoons with his best girl beside him as they roared down country roads.
The years went by and he married his girl and bought a house in a new kind of suburb where the streetcar line didn't reach, and he filled the house with electrical appliances and fashionable furnishings. By then he'd become a manager himself. And, over the course of the years, he owned many cars, each more splendid and more powerful than its predecessor, and it seemed to him that the car was the transport that had lifted him from the cramped confines of the narrow house in the streetcar suburb to the bungalow full of luxuries where he now resided, and from the factory floor to the oak paneled office where he issued orders to other young men. It seemed that the cars were somehow involved in his social ascent. At any rate, for as long as he lived, and he lived past the middle of the century, he never rode another interurban.
The streetcar, whatever else it meant to its riders, did not represent personal freedom or prestige or high fashion or anything the early automobile signified, and it was not associated with the flourishing consumer culture which established itself in the roaring twenties. Peruse the pages of Roland Marchand's brilliantly insightful study of that culture entitled "Advertising the American Dream". The hundreds of print advertisements he reproduces are full of images of the automobile, but streetcars are entirely absent. Streetcars were part of that dream of home ownership that had proved deficient, whereas automobiles in the American imagination represented limitless wealth and freedom.
So market positioning and image advertising proved crucial to the success of the automobile in America. But equally important was the way in which cars were built which in turn ultimately determined their positioning in the marketplace.
In the eighteen eighties when the U.S. pulled ahead of Britain as the premier industrial power, it commanded a body of manufacturing techniques without parallel elsewhere in the world. The famous American System of manufacturing, initially developed for the production of firearms in the early nineteenth century, was extended to large complex mechanical devices such as clocks, typewriters, cash registers, bicycles, sewing machines, printing equipment, boats, and farm machines. Some of these mechanisms contained literally hundreds of precision metal parts, all of which had to be interchangeable.
A parallel but somewhat different development was the assembly line conveyor belt first used in the meat packing and food processing industries. This vastly accelerated the process of production, and led to the extreme rationalization of the entire production chain and the birth of modern industrial engineering.
Finally, the advent of the electrically powered factory permitted the introduction of a whole range of new machine tools which were entirely impractical in the older steam factories where all equipment ran off a single steam engine through a cumbersome and dangerous system of belts and pulleys.
All of these manufacturing innovations were in existence before the first car was built in the United States in 1891, and contrary to popular opinion, none of them was invented by Henry Ford. But because production runs of automobiles were so small, automated mass production manufacturing techniques were not applied to auto making until after the turn of the century. When they were they enabled American auto companies re-conceive both the customer and the product itself.
Indeed, the new mass production techniques had already wrought revolution in product development and marketing, one that crucial implications for the fledgling auto industry.
This requires a bit of explanation.
During the last three decades of the nineteenth century Americans of moderate means began to acquire manufactured products which would have been inconceivable to their parents and these included repeating firearms, sewing machines, fountain pens, bicycles, thirty-five millimeter cameras, pre-fabricated homes, phonographs, and, in the case of some professionals, typewriters, cash registers, and steam powered farm equipment. Such products were largely unavailable in Europe, and represented a new type of personal wealth without precedent and without parallel. The new American automobile fit rather easily within this context.
European auto makers, coming out of a vastly different consumer culture, one which placed special emphasis on limited production luxury good for the haute bourgeoisie and for export to wealthy Americans and Englishmen, naturally envisioned the automobile as a luxury item as well. And thus, despite a nearly ten year lead over American manufacturers in coming to market, and despite the fact that France launched its industry with the singular advantage of an extensive pre-existing network of paved roads, the French were overtaken almost immediately once the American industry got going in 1901. And the reason for this was that the American auto firms quickly began to applying at least some of the innovative manufacturing techniques to the automobile.
Henry Ford brought automotive mass production to its maturity if not its zenith just prior to 1910 and ushered in the age of mass automotive transport. The reign of the gasoline automobile had truly begun and it is far from over now.
Next installment – reconsidering the electric car