Edwin Black: Interviewed about his new history of our oil addiction

Historians in the News

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, which in 2003 won the top two awards of the American Society of Journalists and Authors for best book and best investigative article; and of three other books, including War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. His most recent book is Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives, from which the following is drawn. He was interviewed by Reform Judaism editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

According to your book, there was a time in America when we as a nation were not dependent on oil to power our cars.

Yes. In the 1890s, most of the original automobiles were smooth-running, quiet, environmentally friendly electric vehicles powered by lead batteries. Thousands of such vehicles traversed our city streets and even the back roads of rural America. How we regressed from electric to oil is a complex story rooted in corruption and control. Here's the short version: During the first years of the 20th century, the electric vehicle people were "the bad guys" in America. The key players were the Pope Manufacturing Company in Hartford--which had secured a monopoly on the bicycle industry; the Electric Vehicle Company in New York and Philadelphia, which controlled a monopoly on batteries; and a small group of powerful carmakers such as Olds and Packard. Together, they created an automobile cartel that tried to dictate who could and could not buy and sell a car in America--and what kind of car. These monopolists acquired a primitive automobile patent called the "Selden Patent," designed from the outset to be used as a patent litigation weapon. Armed with this patent, the cartel threatened to file an expensive patent infringement case and injunction against every American who purchased an inexpensive internal combustion car that the "Selden Trust" did not authorize. At the same time, the cartel allowed its own technologically superior electric vehicles to falter in the marketplace in favor of high-priced, extremely profitable gasoline-burning cars designed for the moneyed elite. Remember, this was before mass production; each car was hand-built. Oil, especially oil from the Mideast, was very cheap, much cheaper than a lead battery. What's more, supply and demand of oil could be manipulated, yielding billion-dollar profits.

Soon, production of electric vehicles became limited to a few dozen small, independent car companies that could barely keep the flame of clean auto-making alive.

Didn't Henry Ford play a major role in popularizing internal combustion automobiles?

Yes, but that's only the end of the story. The beginning is fascinating. In 1903, Ford introduced a cheap, mass-produced internal combustion machine for the average man that revolutionized the car industry. The Model T became the "everyman" car. This was also a time when electric vehicles and battery makers--even decent independent ones--were perceived by the masses as scoundrels, crooks, and liars. For decades, imperfect, broken electric-battery technology had been used by devious financiers to launch stock swindles and monopolistic trusts based on exaggerated technology and capability. Thus, for many Americans, purchasing a Model T petroleum car over an electric car became an act of popular defiance against the rich, powerful, and corrupt transportation tycoons who were attempting to control the people's freedom of choice and movement.

In 1914, however, Ford saw the light, so to speak, and joined his lifelong idol Thomas Edison in a project to replace gas-driven internal combustion machines with cheap electric cars powered by revolutionary lightweight nickel batteries that could power a car or truck about 75 miles on a single charge and last for 40,000 miles--which could be the life of the vehicle in those days. Ford and Edison envisioned that all home and automotive energy would eventually be generated by wind-powered backyard and basement generators. Together, the two men invested years and millions of dollars to perfect a new generation of battery-run vehicles and to create a national infrastructure of charging stations and even curbside charging hydrants--remember, this was before gas stations were even invented. Their creative research and planning coalesced in 1914, when they were ready to launch mass production. America once again stood at the crossroads. Would we drive vehicles powered by electricity or oil?...
Read entire article at Aron Hirt-Manheimer in Reform Judaism Online

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