Thomas Edison’s Cars Get a Needed Lift

Visiting the Thomas Edison garage at the Glenmont home estate is a treat for many visitors each year. On a good day, over 200 members of the public enjoy the vintage cars-in particular, the electric cars that used Edison’s famous nickel-iron alkaline storage batteries. Recently these cars were conserved and given much needed cleaning and primping.

Shown below is the 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47, the preferred vehicle of Mrs. Edison. Folks marvel at its “teapot” shaped appearance. In the day, this well-recognized vehicle was seen traversing Essex County on various philanthropic and social missions as Mrs. Edison “gave back” to her fellow citizens. She often served on many committees and working groups engaged in charities, education, and other important issues of the day. She and her vehicle epitomized the independent “home executive”.

1914 Model 47 electric vehicle

1914 Model 47 electric vehicle

Behind the vehicle, to the left as shown above, is the battery charging station Thomas built in 1908—and today, perhaps the oldest garage-based charging station in existence (and we think charging a modern electric vehicle in a garage is something new)! The Model 47 has three on-board battery compartments; one forward, one rear and one underneath for auxiliary applications like headlamps, clock and perhaps some heating for the interior. It was advertised as having a range of 80 miles, at a speed of 20 mph.

Below is the 1911 Detroit Electric L-1 vehicle, the forerunner of the Model 47. Many photos exist of Thomas being driven in this vehicle by either Mrs. Edison, his then young sons, or laboratory assistants. The great inventor was a not a very good driver, often making contact with ditches and trees! He soon became content with sitting peacefully and thinking up new ideas, while being driven around safely by others.

1911 Model L-1 electric vehicle (front and side view)

1911 Model L-1 electric vehicle (front and side view)

Notice the absence of a steering wheel (the same for the 1914 model too). Dual “tillers” were used: the lower one for steering the front wheels right or left; the upper tiller for acceleration. This took some getting used to, and may have been what caused Mr. Edison trouble when he drove. The upper tiller is an adaptation of the “Johnson Bar”, borrowed from locomotive design.

Full steering wheel capability becomes evident in the 1922 Ford Model T, also on display in the garage; and shown below alongside a beautiful 1936 Ford-Brewster owned by Thomas’s son Charles when he was Governor of NJ. Notice the incredible technology and styling changes between the 1922 Model T and the 1936 Brewster.

The Brewster has a 65 Hp, V-8 engine [the famous flathead Ford V-8], and with its rejuvenated internals is capable of 100 mph. The Model T had a 4 cylinder, 20 Hp engine with a top speed of about 45 mph; but it also had a multi-fuel surprise built in….the little engine could burn gasoline, kerosene, or alcohol!

1922 Model T (right) alongside a 1936 Ford Brewster

1922 Model T (right) alongside a 1936 Ford Brewster

The entire first floor of the garage, walls and ceiling, have been freshened as well to show the Edison concrete used to build this magnificent structure. The same Edison concrete formulation used here is what was used to build the original Yankee Stadium in the 1920s.

The Edison Innovation Foundation www.thomasedison.org is now raising money to convert the second floor of this building into an educational facility for the many students and teachers who visit to learn about Edison and his role in creating the very popular STEM educational philosophy and team-based problem solving.

Did you know?
In 1914:

  • 38% of all the cars on the road were electric; 22% gasoline, 40% steam powered.
  • Average annual wage was about $625. Cost of Model 47 was about $3,700.

Thomas Edison said, “I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others… I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent …”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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