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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged electricity

Built 86 years apart, two vehicles in The Henry Ford’s collection say a great deal about changing technology -- but they say even more about our society's changing values.

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1916 Woods Dual-Power Hybrid Coupe

The Woods Motor Vehicle Company, established in 1899 as one of America's earliest automobile producers, was one of the biggest makers of battery-powered electric cars. But, by the early 1910s, the popularity of electric cars was waning. Gasoline-powered cars went farther on a tank of gas than electric cars went on a single battery charge, and filling an empty tank was easier and quicker than recharging batteries. These key shortcomings became more important as car owners drove their cars longer and longer distances. The Woods company sought to meet the challenge by building a car with two power-plants -- a clean, quiet, electric motor fed by batteries and an internal combustion engine fed by gasoline. The Woods Dual-Power automobile appeared in 1916.

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Driving a Dual-Power was different from driving an electric or gasoline car. The driver manipulated levers to vary the balance between the gasoline and electric motors. THF103732

Driving a Dual-Power was considerably different from driving either an electric or a gasoline car. The driver began by moving a lever on the steering wheel to get the car rolling under electric power. When the car reached the speed of 20 miles per hour, the driver moved another lever to engage a clutch connecting the electric motor to the gasoline motor, starting the gasoline motor. By manipulating the levers, the driver varied the balance between the gasoline and electric motors; the car could run on both power sources at the same time, or either independently.

But the Dual-Power seemed to solve problems customers didn't have in 1916. The 48 miles-per-gallon figure claimed for the car meant little to a driver who could afford the Woods' $2,650 price. And the Woods' 35 miles-per-hour top speed was no better than a $740 Model T Ford sedan's. Woods didn't even advertise the Dual-Power's lower exhaust emissions, because automobile pollutants were of little concern at that time. It also seems that the Dual-Power was not as smooth and trouble free as the ads and brochures suggested. Woods re-engineered the car for 1917, but potential buyers were not impressed. The Dual-Power -- and the Woods Motor Vehicle Company itself -- vanished in 1918.

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2002 Toyota Prius Sedan

Ratchet forward to the 1990s. Automakers around the world were confronted by rising gasoline prices and stringent regulations on tailpipe emissions. Japanese giant Toyota set out to design a new car that dramatically improved gas mileage and dramatically reduced exhaust emissions. Toyota engineers probably never heard of the Woods Dual-Power, but in 1994 they settled on a dual-power design, combining a small gasoline engine with batteries and an electric motor. The first hybrid Toyota Prius went on sale in Japan in December 1997, and in the United States in August 2000.

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Operating a Prius was simple -- a sophisticated computer system controlled both the electric and gasoline motors, smoothly shifting power between the two. THF91042

Although the Prius drivetrain was similar in principle to the Dual-Power's, operating a Prius was much simpler. The driver merely turned the ignition key, pulled the transmission selector lever into "D," stepped on the gas, and drove away. A sophisticated computer system controlled both the electric and gasoline motors, smoothly shifting power between the two. Sometimes the computer system used the gasoline engine to recharge the batteries. It even shut the engine off when the car stopped and started it up again as needed. The Woods engineers would have given their eye teeth for such technology. Woods sales staff might have given their right arms for the Prius' popularity.

Toyota's Prius hybrid sold well in Japan and even better in the United States. By 2005, Prius accounted for nearly 10% of Toyota's American sales. Part of that popularity was due to Prius' reliability, good performance, and considerable amount of interior room for its size. Part was due to Prius' excellent gas mileage -- over 40 miles-per-gallon on the highway and over 50 mpg in stop-and-go traffic. But it could take several years for savings on gasoline to make up for the several thousand-dollar price difference between a Prius and a comparable, conventional Toyota Corolla -- even with federal tax subsidies for hybrid cars.

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For many people, what a car doesn't do -- use lots of gasoline, emit lots of pollutants -- has become as important as what it does do. THF205087

What really sold many people on the Prius was environmental responsibility. Driving cars with lower emissions and higher gas mileage was The Right Thing To Do, whether it reduced out-of-pocket expenses or not. Furthermore, driving a Prius told the world that you were Doing The Right Thing. The Prius became hip, especially among intellectuals and celebrities. Movie stars took to arriving at the Academy Awards in Priuses rather than limousines to demonstrate their concern for the environment. Even after other car makers such as Ford, Honda, Saturn and Nissan added hybrids to their lineups, the Prius retained its cachet.

The stories of the Dual-Power and Prius tell us that the definition of what we want an automobile to do is always evolving. Yes, we want cars to take us where we want to go. And taking us there in high style, or high comfort, or at high speed is often still important. But, for many people, what a car doesn't do -- use lots of gasoline, emit lots of pollutants -- has become as important as what it does do.

Bob Casey is The Henry Ford’s former Curator of Transportation. A version of this post originally ran in March 2007 as part of our Pic of the Month series.

hybrid cars, Driving America, Henry Ford Museum, environmentalism, electricity, power, by Bob Casey, cars, alternative fuel vehicles

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When Thomas Edison decided to develop a commercial lighting system he had to do far more than design a light bulb and generator: he and his collaborators had to devise the entire system -- right down to the wire insulation and fuses. Even the electrical measuring instruments that were needed to chart the progress of experiments had to be sought from other fields such as telegraphy.

Edison demonstrated his lighting system to the public for the first time in December 1879, but the system was hardly a workable commercial product. Many refinements -- to increase durability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness -- would be needed before his lighting system could be described as a competitive product. One of the most important missing elements was a meter for keeping track of customers' electricity usage. The electrical meter that Edison and his collaborators devised was an ingenious device -- an arrangement that allowed the amount of electricity a customer used to be weighed.

The meter, known as the Edison Chemical or Electrolytic Meter, was in essence a laboratory apparatus installed in the basements of customers' buildings. It consisted of two glass jars filled with a zinc sulphate solution; immersed in each jar were a pair of electrodes -- matched pairs of zinc plates. The operation was deceptively simple. A portion of the current flowing into the customer's electrical system passed through the plates, causing an electrolytic reaction. The more electricity a customer used, the more zinc would be transferred from one plate to the other. It was this difference in weight that allowed the electrical bill to be determined. Usage was calculated on a monthly basis: an Edison employee would replace the previous month's plates with a new set whose weight had already been carefully recorded. The old plates were taken away to have their weight checked and a bill calculated. The body of the meter had to be tough and tamper-proof -- hence the term "ironclad" that was used to describe this all-metal meter. Later units were wooden boxes with a metal door. In either case, the enclosure was secured with the kind of lead seal that is still used to guard modern electric or gas meter mechanisms.

Meters like this remained in service in some installations well into the 1890s. Many customers were distrustful of this metering method, asserting that the plate removal and remote calculations allowed them no way of checking whether the company was padding their bills. Modern numerical meters allow consumers to see a read-out of their electricity, gas, or water usage. However, the meters' settings -- and indeed the consistency of different meters -- is still something we trust to the utility company.

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home life, by Marc Greuther, power, electricity, Thomas Edison

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Bergmann & Company Edison Chemical Meter, Used at the City Hotel, Sunbury, Pennsylvania, 1883. THF164679

imls-logoAs work progresses on the Electrical Collection thanks to an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, the fascinating context in which these objects were used is discovered. This Edison chemical meter used at the City Hotel in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, the first hotel commercially wired for electricity, and was part of the first three-wire power system in the world.

THF253939Following the success of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, the first central power station in the world, Thomas Edison sent his agent, P. B. Shaw, to find other ideal locations for more central power stations. The locations needed to have high gas prices to make the switch to electric lights appealing, and inexpensive fuel to help compete in the lighting business.

Shaw traveled the Coal Region of Pennsylvania to find a place that met the criteria, and organized multiple Edison Electric Illuminating Companies including Shamokin (1882), Sunbury (July 1883), and Mount Carmel (November 1883). The site selected in Sunbury backed up onto a stream flowing down from Shamokin, which would deposit coal on its banks after heavy rainfall or melting snow. Sunbury’s high cost of gas, free coal, and proximity to water meant that it was the perfect location for a power plant; however, the location was outside the town’s business center, which would add to the cost due to the length of wires needing to be strung from the power plant to potential customers.

To offset costs, Edison took a party of potential donors on his electric railway to demonstrate his innovative technology. After the demonstration, Edison was inspired to improve his two-wire system in use in New York by adding a third-wire to act as a neutral line, as well as using two dynamos to generate 220 volts while still allowing 110 volt lamp usage to ensure consistent distribution of power throughout the long wires. After a brief test, Edison applied for a patent and the three wires with conductors were strung to the City Hotel, thus making it the first building to be commercially wired for electricity and Sunbury the first city to have three wire commercial direct current incandescent lighting and overhead conductors.

On July 4, 1883, the City Hotel of Sunbury became the first building lit with incandescent carbon-filament light bulbs using the three wire system. To measure the electricity used by the hotel, an Edison Chemical Meter, one of the first electric wattmeters, was installed. These electrolytic meters measured electricity through electroplating, but needed to be removed and measured at the central station in order to bill customers. The meters were reliable, despite the cumbersome method for billing, but were phased out in the 1890s and replaced by mechanical meters, which were easier to read.

Laura Lipp Myles is Collections Specialist at The Henry Ford.

lighting, Thomas Edison, power, electricity, by Laura Myles, IMLS grant

imls-logoWhile researching the many electrical objects being digitized as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant, a few stories have stood out to me. These stories sometimes involve the people behind the scenes: manufacturers, inventors, etc., and other times are about how the object was used. Below are four such objects and their stories.

This Jenney Electric Motor Company rheostat has uncovered an interesting story about the company’s namesake. It was designed by Charles G. Jenney who was awarded a patent for it in 1892. Jenney, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father to design and produce electrical equipment for the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company. On February 27, 1885, Jenney, who had been contracted to the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company by his father while still a minor, successfully petitioned to be removed from the company, and, a month later, he founded the Jenney Electric Light Company later the Jenney Electric Company. The Jenney Electric Company was demonstrating Jenney’s dynamos, arc lamps, and incandescent lamps by August that same year. This company was bought out and Jenney started again, this time with the Jenney Electric Motor Company in 1889 for which he produced electrical equipment like this rheostat, filed for more patents, and wired and lit the streets of Indianapolis.

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power, electricity, by Laura Myles, IMLS grant

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imls-logoDuring the latter half of the nineteenth century, Professors William E. Ayrton and John Perry collaborated on inventing an array of instruments from electrical devices for railways to meters to measure electricity. The London, England-based company, Latimer Clark, Muirhead, & Co., manufactured this Ayrton and Perry ammeter between 1883 and 1890.  

Confident in their work, Ayrton and Perry personally certified the accuracy of their meters, which were touted as being among the most reliable. This ammeter, with its fascinating story, is one of the many objects being rediscovered as work progresses on The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant.

To see our most recent behind-the-scenes updates, make sure to follow us on Facebook when we go live in the Conservation Lab.

Laura Lipp is a Collections Documentation Specialist at The Henry Ford.

inventors, electricity, IMLS grant, by Laura Myles

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We are a little over halfway through our project to digitize artifacts from our electrical distribution collections, generously funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). As of the end of November, 357 of these artifacts were available in our Digital Collections, and of those, nearly half were meters of some variety—ammeters, voltmeters, wattmeters, etc.

While the project team is suffering from a bit of meter overload (no pun intended), every once in a while one catches our eye for some reason or other. One recent example is this Fort Wayne Prepayment Meter, which allowed energy customers to insert coins to start electricity flowing, rather than being billed for usage after the fact. 

If you’d like to learn more about our work on this grant, visit our Digital Collections to browse electricity-related artifacts, or like us on Facebook to see live behind-the-scenes updates from the Conservation Labs (previous updates can be viewed on our Facebook video page).

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

electricity, power, IMLS grant, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

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If you’ve walked through “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum, you’re familiar with the long and complicated history of social transformation, including civil rights and race relations, in America. Some artifacts, like the Rosa Parks Bus, are primary sources in this story, but we also hold collections that offer a more oblique take, such as about 100 photo negatives we’ve just digitized relating to five days of civil unrest in Detroit in July 1967.

The images come from Detroit Edison, which was charged with the very normal work of restoring electricity under very abnormal conditions. While the photos primarily document the power company’s work in the wake of the unrest, the events of the preceding days and their aftermath are omnipresent, as you can see in this image. We undertook this digitization project as part of our participation in “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” “a multi-year community engagement project of the Detroit Historical Society that brings together diverse voices and communities around the effects of an historic crisis to find their place in the present and inspire the future.”

During 2017, we shared more collections-based stories related to the complex roots of, and reactions to, Detroit 67, in keeping with our mission to inspire people to help shape a better future. For now, visit our Digital Collections to browse all of the July 1967 Detroit Edison images.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in July 2020.

electricity, power, by Ellice Engdahl, Michigan, digital collections, Detroit, African American history

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We continue to work on our IMLS-grant funded project to conserve, catalog, photograph, rehouse, and digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution equipment collection.  A number of the meters and other artifacts we’ve turned up during that project were created by the Fort Wayne Electric Works (also known as the Fort Wayne Electric Corporation), an Indiana company that manufactured electrical equipment and other items in the late 19th century.  To accompany the artifacts, we’ve just digitized photographs from our Fort Wayne Electric Works archival collection, which show various parts of the factory around 1894—including this shot of the testing and calibrating laboratory. 

Connect our Fort Wayne artifacts with our Fort Wayne photographs for yourself by visiting our Digital Collections.

Ellice Engdahl is 
Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

archives, photographs, IMLS grant, manufacturing, power, electricity, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

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We are about 35% of the way through our 24-month project to digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution collections, thanks in large part to a
generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and nearly 100 objects from the grant are currently accessible through our Digital Collections.

Outside that project, but on a related note, we’ve just finished digitizing 132 photos of figures associated with the same companies as the objects we’re digitizing in the grant.  For example, now you can see images of
people associated with Westinghouse Electric Company, and also find objects created by that company, most of which were conserved and photographed through the grant.  One intriguing image we found is this 1880 photograph of Thomas Edison associate Charles Batchelor, which notes it is “the first photograph ever taken by incandescent electric lamps.” 

Visit our Digital Collections to see
all of these portraits of electrical pioneers, and keep an eye out for more artifacts digitized through the grant to be added over upcoming months.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

power, digital collections, electricity, by Ellice Engdahl, IMLS grant

Death mask of electrical pioneer, Nikola Tesla, made in 1943. THF49159

In the era before photography, masks — cast from molds taken directly from an individual's face or hands — were a means of making a portrait without resorting to the services (and perhaps shortcomings) of an artist. By the mid-twentieth century it was far easier to make a photographic portrait than to go to the trouble of making a mask. The detailed and lifelike quality of masks — taken from living or recently deceased individuals — ensured the survival of the process.

This copper mask captures the likeness of electrical pioneer and experimenter Nikola Tesla. It was made immediately upon the latter's death in 1943, at the request of publisher and writer Hugo Gernsback, a friend of Tesla's. Continue Reading

Made in America, Henry Ford Museum, power, electricity