Noted investigative journalist and author Edwin Black has a new book out: Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives. It’s about the transition from electric cars (and public transit), which were widespread in the late 19th century, to internal-combustion cars. Suffice to say, the “free market” played very little role.
There’s a great interview with Black over on Reform Judaism Magazine. Here’s a taste:
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?