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.
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.
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.
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.