Smoke-belching steam locomotives were familiar sights to Americans in the 1860s. But a small steam carriage running under its own power—without horses!—was so startling that people paid to see it driven around a track. It was a curiosity, not transportation. By the time its inventor, Sylvester Roper, died in 1896, the next generation of innovators was trying to transform horseless carriages from curiosities into practical vehicles.
Massachusetts machinist Sylvester Roper built at least seven steam carriages and two steam motorcycles. They weren’t considered practical vehicles but became popular attractions at circuses and fairs. The driver is probably W.W. Austin, who exhibited Ropers.
Elon Musk thinks big. The mission of his car company, Tesla Motors, is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy,” while his commercial space travel business, SpaceX, aims “to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
In June 2008, The Henry Ford visited SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, campus to interview Musk about these lofty goals, a trip that resulted in a lengthy oral history now available online in both video and transcript format as part of The Henry Ford’s Visionaries on Innovation series. At the time the interview was conducted, Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian also documented the whole experience, taking many pictures of the facility, the museum staff who participated, and Musk himself. We’ve just added nearly 200 of these images to our Digital Collections, including this photo of Musk hard at work at his desk.
1912 Baker Electric Victoria, used by five first ladies of the United States. THF67884
You might imagine that the White House was an early adopter of the automobile. We think of the presidency as being on technology’s cutting edge. Furthermore, when you realize that progressive Theodore Roosevelt’s term (1901-1909) coincided with the automobile’s rise, it seems natural that the Chief Executive would have made prominent use of the day’s foremost invention. But Roosevelt held fast to the reins and refused to give up his horse-drawn vehicles.
It’s not that Roosevelt avoided cars altogether. He certainly took the occasional car ride while in office, but he refused to bring autos into the presidential transport fleet. This was the era when most people still viewed the automobile as a plaything for the wealthy. It would have damaged Roosevelt’s populist image to have him seen barreling down the street in a motor car. And so it was left to his successor, William Howard Taft, to motorize the White House.
William Howard Taft campaign button. THF155488 Taft did so with gusto, converting the mansion’s stables into a garage and filling it with a White steam car, two gasoline-powered Pierce-Arrows and a Baker electric in 1909. It’s interesting to note that Taft played no favorites when it came to fuel. (The question of which fuel – gasoline, steam or electric – was optimal wasn’t quite settled.) And it seems no coincidence that the Ohio-born Taft favored two carmakers, White and Baker, based in Cleveland.
While the President preferred the White steamer, First Lady Helen Taft chose the Baker as her personal vehicle. Mrs. Taft was not content to be chauffeured around Washington – she drove the Baker herself. Her use of an electric car was perfectly in keeping with the trend for marketing electrics toward prosperous, status-conscious women. Three years later, Mrs. Taft traded in the 1909 model for a new 1912 Baker electric valued at $2000. Records indicate that only $809.50 was paid, so either she received a generous trade-in credit or Baker thought the publicity was worth a substantial discount (or, perhaps, a little of both).
That second Baker, a Victoria model with a gracefully curved body, boasted a top speed of about 30 miles per hour and a range near 50 miles. The little car became a White House fixture. When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency in 1913, his wife Ellen and their three daughters drove the Baker. And after Ellen Wilson’s death in 1914, President Wilson’s second wife, Edith, also made use of the Baker. When Warren Harding took office in 1921, First Lady Florence Harding inherited the Baker electric. (The Hardings, like the Tafts, were Ohioans and perhaps took a little Buckeye pride in the Victoria.) And after President Harding’s death in 1923, Calvin Coolidge assumed office and new First Lady Grace Coolidge took to the Baker. By this time, though, the 1912 Baker was outdated in appearance and propulsion. The Baker electric was retired in 1928, and soon thereafter made its way to The Henry Ford.
Our Baker has now gone back to Cleveland, its city of manufacture. For the next year, it will be on loan to the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The loan begins just as the nation’s political spotlight turns to Cleveland with the Republican National Convention, scheduled for July 18-21, 2016. It’s quite fitting: the convention is a major milestone on the road to the White House, and that’s a road the Baker has traveled many times before.
A hydrogen-fueled Prototype from Colorado’s Wheat Ridge High School charges up Jefferson Avenue at the 2016 Shell Eco-marathon Americas.
The gas mileage in our cars is nothing to sneeze at these days. The average for all new light-duty vehicles sold in the United States is around 25 miles per gallon. Buy a gas/electric hybrid like the Toyota Prius or the Chevrolet Volt and the equivalent mileage jumps to about 60. Go with the all-electric Tesla Model S and you’re looking at an equivalent of almost 90 miles per gallon. Good numbers, but you’d have to multiply them by ten to be taken seriously at the Shell Eco-marathon Americas.
For the second year in a row, Shell brought its super-mileage competition to Detroit. More than 1,000 students on 124 teams from high schools and colleges throughout the Western Hemisphere gathered in the Motor City April 22-24 to compete toward a simple goal: to tease as much mileage out of a gallon of gasoline (or its equivalent) as possible.
Students from Michigan’s Lapeer County Education and Technology Center are fans of The Love Bug, judging by their Urban Concept vehicle. If you’re fan of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, then you might recall that the competition was featured in the show. Cars compete in two classes. The Prototypes are stripped-down, highly aerodynamic designs, while the Urban Concept vehicles look a bit more like production cars. Teams may use either internal combustion engines (fueled by gasoline, diesel, natural gas or ethanol) or electric motors (fed by lithium-based batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.) This year’s overall winner was Université Laval of Quebec City with 2,584 miles per gallon. Fellow Canadians from the University of Toronto weren’t far behind with 2,364. California Polytechnic State University rounded out the podium with 1,125. (Complete results are available here.)
How do teams achieve these extraordinary numbers? Streamlined shapes and lightweight materials are big parts of the equation, but the teams also shut off their engines and coast as much as possible along the 0.6-mile course laid out through downtown Detroit. But competing vehicles have to maintain an average speed of at least 15 miles per hour over ten laps, so they can’t rely too heavily on momentum.
Inspection is rigorous. Many teams struggle with the brake test, in which their car’s brakes must hold the vehicle (with driver) perfectly still on a 20-percent grade.
It’s an all-in commitment for the students. Teams began arriving in Detroit on Tuesday, and most of them stayed in tents set up on Cobo Center’s lower level. If they weren’t sleeping or competing on the track, odds are that the students were working on their cars in the paddocks that covered much of Cobo’s main hall. Each vehicle has to pass a rigorous safety and compliance inspection before it’s allowed on the track, so there’s always fine-tuning to be done.
Everybody loves to build a Model T. In addition to the competition, there were many other attractions for the public to enjoy. The Henry Ford was pleased to have a presence in Cobo Center alongside the Michigan Science Center, the MotorCities National Heritage Area, FCA and other organizations. We brought two of our signature experiences – the “Build a Model T” activity and the operating replica of Henry Ford’s Kitchen Sink Engine – along with the replica of the 1896 Quadricycle and the 102.5 mile-per-gallon Edison2 X Prize car. We also brought several auto-related clips from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation to inspire the teams and event visitors alike.
On Saturday, I was privileged to moderate a panel discussion with students and staff from Maxwell High School of Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The group won the grand prize in Quaker State’s 2015 Best in Class Challenge, in which they had six weeks to turn a plain-vanilla 2003 Chevrolet Impala into a head-turning street machine. The competition, with its tight time and money restrictions, gave the students a new appreciation for teamwork – not unlike the cooperation that is so crucial to Eco-marathon teams.
The Shell Eco-marathon Americas will be back in Detroit in 2017. If you missed the event this year, be sure to get to Cobo Center next time to enjoy one of the most exciting and innovative motor vehicle challenges around.
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
When we look at an automobile, we are moved by what we see on the outside – its styling. But what moves the car is on the inside – its engine. Please join us for a rare look under the hoods of some of the finest automobiles at Henry Ford Museum. More than 40 cars have their engines exposed for you.
Here, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, describes some of his favorites.
Electric Motor: AC, permanent magnet, 33 kilowatt, 44 horsepower
Hybrid cars are an old idea, but their moment arrived with the Toyota Prius. The car’s gas and electric power plants sit side-by-side. The electrical inverter, on top of the electric motor, converts DC current from the batteries into AC used by the motor. That motor becomes a generator during braking, turning kinetic energy from the car’s momentum into electricity fed back to the batteries.
Automobiles powered by electricity have been around almost as long as there have been automobiles. In fact, in 1900, battery-powered electric cars outsold cars with gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines. But there is far more energy in a pound of gasoline than in a pound of storage batteries, meaning that gasoline-powered cars could travel farther on a tank than electric cars could on a single charge. Largely because of this, electric cars had virtually disappeared from the market by the late 1920s. By the end of the 20th century concerns about air pollution and imported oil caused people to look once again at alternatives to the internal combustion engine.
In 1997 General Motors introduced the EV1, probably the best electric car produced to that time. The car was in part a response to California laws requiring the sale of a certain percentage of vehicles that emitted no pollutants. General Motors went to great lengths to overcome the limited range offered by storage batteries.
When high school drafting design instructor Mike Evans discovered Greenpower, the academic electric car competition, he had no idea how far it would take him and his students. In less than three years, the team from Alabama’s Huntsville Center of Technology’s (HCT) went from drafting Solid Edge models for the UK based competition, to becoming the first international high school team, and now starting the competition in America.
“It started with an introduction from Mike Brown who oversees Siemens’ mainstream engineering global academic programs,” said Evans. “We had a long relationship with Siemens so he asked us to reverse engineer the F-24 kit car in Siemens Solid Edge software for Greenpower’s UK CEO Jeremy Way. When Jeremy saw the students’ models he invited us to build a car and enter the race.”
Greenpower started back in 1999 with a dream of supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Building and racing the electric cars inspires and engages students of all ages to pursue STEM subjects.