By on May 2, 2012

General Electric EV Charger Then

The annual World Congress of the Society of Automotive Engineers is often a showcase for the most trendy technologies that have buzz in the auto industry. Judging by the number of new engine designs shown in the display area, it’s clear that internal combustion is far from dead.

As you would expect, though, there were also production and concept electric cars as well as EV and hybrid components on the show floor. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a gasoline pump at an SAE congress, but there were a number of EV charging stations on display from a variety of manufacturers. Nissan had pedestal and wall mounted home EV chargers made by General Electric in their joint display demonstrating how Nissan Leafs and GE home appliances will live together in harmony in a wonderful world powered by unicorn farts a “smart” electrical grid. Adjacent to that display were two Leafs from the EV Ride & Drive set up inside Cobo Hall getting recharged at substantially larger public/commercial charging units, including a DC fast charging station from AV EV Solutions, and one of Nissan’s own CHAdeMO compliant quick chargers. Blink had wall and pedestal units in a diplay promoting both home chargers and Blink’s commercial chargers. As with GE, Blink is promoting the fact that their chargers are intelligent.

General Electric EV Chargers Now

I hadn’t really thought about it until a recent visit to the Detroit Historical Museum, but back in the early days of automobiles, when gasoline, steam and electrical power were duking it out, gasoline had a decided disadvantage. While it’s a superior fuel, with 13,000 BTU of energy per gallon, at the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a gasoline station on every corner. When Bertha Benz took her historic ride in her hubby’s three-wheeler, she had to stop at a Wiesloch apothecary to get some benzene, used as a cleaning fluid, to refuel and make it home. Electricity, on the other hand, was available in many, if not most, American urban homes by the time Henry Ford left his job as chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company to start his first automotive enterprise. So, people could theoretically charge their electric cars at home. Still, as now, though, EV enthusiasts needed some kind of charging device.

Once Steinmetz did the math, even Edison realized that practical commercial distribution of electricity meant embracing alternating current. Batteries, however, produce direct current and they’re also recharged with DC. Owners of early electric cars needed a practical method of converting the AC supplied to their homes to DC at current levels sufficient to charge their cars’ batteries.

The most successful electric car still to today was the Detroit Electric made by the Anderson company, selling 20,000+ electric cars from 1907 to 1939. Electric cars were popular with women, not needing to be crank started, nor emitting foul odors or clattering mechanical noises (the cars that is). Clara Ford, Mrs. Henry Ford, owned a Detroit Electric. So did Helen Newberry Joy, the wife of Henry Joy, president and CEO of Packard. The Detroit Historical Museum owns Mrs. Joy’s 1915 Detroit Electric and it’s on display right next to a home EV charger of the same approximate vintage.

By 1914, the General Electric company had already sold over 12,000 “mercury arc rectifiers” for use in charging electric cars as well as in other applications where DC was needed, such as powering telephone stations and motion picture projectors. It’s interesting, but one can use GE’s mercury arc rectifier based EV charger to show both how much has changed and how little has changed in the past 100 years. From a base technical standpoint, the 100-year-old charger could probably charge a Leaf or a Chevy Volt if you had the right connector and the unit was in working order. GE made units that ran on either 110 or 220 VAC, in capacities of up to 50 amps, sufficient for today’s EVs. A GE Mercury Arc Rectifier also took up about the same space as one of Blink’s or Nissan’s pedestal units.

Detroit Electric being recharged by a woman. From a 1914 General Electric bulletin.

Things have changed a bit in 100 years, though. With it’s exposed knife switches that look like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, electrical connectors that would cause palpitations at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and a fragile vacuum tube filled with toxic mercury that I’m sure would not pass EPA muster, the Mercury Arc Rectifier would be a trial lawyer’s retirement plan if it were sold today.

As complicated and as dangerous as the GE mercury arc rectifier appears to us, it was sold as a consumer appliance and as with electric cars in general, it was heavily marketed to women.

Back then people weren’t assumed to be idiots, they understood that electricity was dangerous, and companies rarely got sued for selling dangerous products. In an era when you could get your brains bashed in by the starting crank of a backfiring motorcar, I suppose electrocution wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to you.

A General Electric bulletin from 1914 describes how to start up their Mercury Arc Rectifier.

In operation this rectifier is simple. After the set is adjusted for the proper direct current output, the alternating current line switch is closed, the circuit breaker closed, the spring starting switch on the right hand side of the panel is moved into the starting position, and held while the [vacuum] tube is rocked [on its gimbal] to form the necessary starting arc. As soon as the arc is formed, the starting switch is released, and it automatically springs into the load position, when the rectifier begins charging the storage battery.


See? Simple. Right? The first embedded video will give you an idea of what was involved getting it started. The second video shows a mercury arc rectifier in use. Remember, this was sold as a home appliance.

While today’s EV charger’s manufacturers tout their units’ “smart” capabilities, GE did not, as some companies did then, offer “automatic” charging operation, saying that it wasn’t safe and that prudent consumers monitored their chargers to avoid, fires, overcharging and other problems. Though that attitude shows that it was a different era, one that accepted the risk inherent in life, still, just as today’s manufacturers offer commercial charging units to hotels and parking garage operators, GE also did offer “Public Garage Type Rectifiers”, which had the capacity to charge multiple vehicles in parallel.

That a big company like General Electric would be, in a sense, promoting electric cars shows that they still had market promise in the middle of the 20th century’s second decade, but compare the 12,000 chargers that they’d sold to the fact that in 1914, Model T sales first exceeded 200,000 units. Once again, General Electric is promoting electric cars and selling EV chargers, but it seems to me that they’re still facing those steep numerical odds, and unlike in 1914, there really is a gas station on almost every corner.


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27 Comments on “Plus ça Charge, Plus c’est la Même Chose...”

  • avatar

    Just to be fussy – you mean BENZINE, which used to be used as cleaning agent, but is no longer, because it is a liver poison and extremely carcinogenic. Benzene is a cyclic hydrocarbon ring.

    • 0 avatar

      I wondered about the cyclic ring myself, but it was the spelling used at the site that I checked about the Bertha Benz story. I figured it was a German spelling. Now, looking at a photo of the monument to Siegfried Marcus in Vienna, the German inscription reads “Erfinder das benzinautomobils 1870”. You’re correct.

  • avatar

    Also, I would not be at all surprised if Mr. Baruth owns an amplifier with a vacuum tube rectifier today. No mercury, though.

  • avatar

    Or BENZENE as we call it in Jersey.

  • avatar


    If modern chargers offered a light show like that, it would probably improve sales of electric cars.

    My fire insurance premiums would probably go up, though.

  • avatar

    Very interesting read. The more things change..

  • avatar

    Great article! I have an engineering background but I’ve never heard of a mercury arc rectifier. Very Tom Swiftian.

  • avatar

    Let’s not make these seem like old-fashioned, turn of the last century tech. Mercury Arc Valves were still in use as of 2004, when the last really big ones were replaced at a power station in Manitoba. While the US jumped on the solid state bandwagon in the 60’s, much of the tech we invented was just too expensive for application around the world simultaneously. There are major problems with MAVs, but the original design (and subsequent refinement) made them fantastically suited to their jobs for decades.

  • avatar

    Neat stuff!

    Mercury VAPOR rectifiers were used in high power electronic equipment like broadcast transmitters until the 1960s and the advent of the silicon diode. However they had a filament for heating the mercury and did not need to be shaken!

  • avatar

    When my dad decided to abandon the gulf coast (if your ins. is more than your mortgage, why not) he had my great-grandmother’s home completely redone, when he had the carraige(sp) house converted into his train room (bigger than my house), they found the original edison 12v DC power source, basically a giant row of lead-acid batteries, cloth rapped wires and original diagrams, that on 12v I’m guesssing would take all day to charge and you could have alittle juice for the night (I know in helping him install a ceiling fan that the house had atleast three sets of wires run over 1890’s (est.) to present), he just had them haul it off.

  • avatar

    What happened to steam-driven cars?

    • 0 avatar

      Bill Lear, of LearJet and 8-Track tape fame, sunk a ton of money trying to build a modern steam powered car back in the late 1960s. There’s an effort in the UK going for the steam powered land speed record and I see that Cyclone Power, who is trying to revive Rankin cycle engines, is part of a Bonneville effort as well.

      As far as I know, in addition to obvious drawbacks of steam (time needed to get pressure from a cold start, freezing, weight), nobody’s been able to make a steam engine as fuel efficient as an internal combustion engine. You might be able to get into the 20s in terms of MPG but not much higher.

      GM also experimented with a couple of steam powered cars in the late ’60s early ’70s, one with an engine of their own design.

      More recently, BMW developed the Turbo Steamer test bed concept, using waste heat in the exhaust and engine coolant to run a two stage Rankin cycle engine hooked to the combustion engine’s crankshaft via a chain or belt as an engine assist device. They claimed about 10-15% improvements in both power and fuel efficiency.

      My guess is they were using some very expensive ceramics in the heat exchangers.

      • 0 avatar

        “nobody’s been able to make a steam engine as fuel efficient as an internal combustion engine.”

        Not so sure of that. Steam power plants are ususlly about 40% efficient while gas turbine power plants are about 35%.

      • 0 avatar

        He means in the size and weight envelope needed to power a car or even a train. Yes, a building-sized steam turbine power plant is more fuel-efficient than an internal combustion electric generator.

    • 0 avatar

      What about turbine engines? Those never even really got a chance.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert Schwartz

        Turbines got a huge chance. They drove piston based ICE engines out of the airplane business. The problem is that their operational characteristics are not very compatible with how we use automobiles. Here is a clue. The US Navy puts turbines in destroyers, but the commercial shipping lines put diesels in their ships.

  • avatar
    Ex Radio Operator

    If you had ever cold started a boiler you would know why. Don’t plan on going anywhere in a hurry. The principle is the same as a steam engine on a train, just smaller. Compare starting a charcoal grill and an LPG grill. Takes time to get the charcoal going. Just turn a valve and apply a match and the gas grill is ready. Steam cars were at a convenience and speed disadvantage to both gasoline and electric cars.

  • avatar

    Interesting to see things in use that today would never happen. Imagine going back to 1965 or so and trying to live in that time. I guess a modern person would be appalled at the total lack of concern for safety or your surroundings by what was in common use. As much as it is easy to long for the “old, simple days”, I would never want to live back in that time, at least not permanently. I’d like to go back in time and load up a huge garage with musclecars to use today though…

    Lear created 8 tracks, huh? Interesting…

    • 0 avatar

      Some things were very unsafe like the belts in factories overhead. Other things were only unsafe if you were stupid. Thats the part I don’t get, when did stupidity become the fault of the manufacturer?

      That’s something I will just never understand.

  • avatar

    Very good article indeed.

    Think you’ll find that gasoline is rated about 18,500 to 19,500 btu/lb.

  • avatar

    Why not a hybrid car running electric motors for low speed, and a steam driven turbine powering the generator, and maybe the wheels thru a CVT? Wait, why not a regular turbine? Oh yeah, because in a external combustion steam driven turbine you could burn whatever it is they are burning at the power plant you are getting the electricity from anyway, only without the miles of wire. If you’ve got the batteries and electric motor from a hybrid you can drive the car for miles while the boiler is getting hot.

  • avatar

    The early 1900s EVSE (EV Supply Equipment) were in fact off-board chargers, and converted AC to DC of the appropriate voltage to charge the battery.

    Today’s J1772 EVSE are just 240V AC supply equipment with some extra safety & management logic. The charger (AC to appropriate-voltage DC) equipment is an onboard component nowadays, except in the Teslas which re-use the motor controller in reverse as a charger.

  • avatar

    So the lesson is that Electric Vehicles become appealing when the alternative kills you? Finally we have a viable EV business plan!

    If every 500th hand crank of an engine broke your arm/killed you with a backfire, then maybe every 500th startup on a gas engine can open a valve that sprays a fine mist of fuel throughout the interior and engine compartment.

    Anyone know an insider at the EPA that can get cracking on this?

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Besides the obvious shock, poisoning and fire hazards, the “regulating compensator” choke would have made a loud humming buzz; and the rectifier tube itself, in addition to the beautiful and eerie blue light, it would also be a potent producer of UV rays, so you could get sun-tanned in a hurry just standing there watching the show.

    Anyways…If EV vehicles eventually become mainstream, I’m willing to bet exactly 1 US$ that some company will attempt to make a “retro” EV-charger using a faux-Mercury Rectifier.

    On other stuff: Thanks for giving Steinmetz credit where credit is due. Although Tesla indeed conceived the alternating currents and George Westinghouse was the one who financially backed it, it was Charles Steinmetz who actually figured out the complex mathematical relationships that rule AC behavior. Prior to Steinmetz analysis, an AC electrical installation was a hit and miss proposition, an unsolvable puzzle.

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