Even as trucks and highways spread in the first half of the 20th century, industrial America largely still ran on rails. Manufacturers relied on railroads to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods. The largest factories had extensive railyards filled with cars that needed to be shuttled around. Raw materials used by those factories were supplied by extractive enterprises like mines, quarries, and logging operations that operated internal railroads of their own. Clearly, there was a market for reliable, easy-to-operate locomotives that could be used on these private industrial railroads.
The J.D. Fate Company got into that market in 1914, building diesel and gasoline locomotives under the “Plymouth” brand (named for the company’s hometown of Plymouth, Ohio). Five years later, the firm combined with Root Brothers Company to form the Fate-Root-Heath Company. The newly-merged business manufactured brick and tile-making machinery, hardware and grinders, farm tractors, and—of course—light industrial locomotives.
What made Plymouth locomotives so simple and reliable? Our 1927 example is a gasoline-powered, mechanically driven machine. Its powertrain has more in common with the family car than with a steam locomotive. Steam locomotives burn coal in order to heat water and produce steam. That steam is fed into cylinders, where it pushes pistons that move rods that, in turn, move the driving wheels. Steam locomotives require specialized knowledge and skill to operate.
“Plymouth Gasoline Locomotives”—both the brand and the fuel are clear in this photo. / THF15919
Our Plymouth locomotive is powered by an inline six-cylinder gasoline engine. While it’s larger than what you’d find in a typical car (the Plymouth engine’s displacement is around 1,000 cubic inches), it operates under the same principle. Gasoline is fed into the cylinder and ignited by a spark. The resulting explosion pushes a piston that turns a crankshaft that, via a transmission, turns the driving wheels. And, like an automobile, the Plymouth’s transmission includes a clutch and a four-speed gearbox. If you can drive a car, then you can quickly learn to operate a Plymouth locomotive.
No two industrial railroads were the same, so Plymouth manufactured locomotives in multiple configurations. Track gauge—the width between the rails—was the most important consideration for a Plymouth customer. Standard gauge on American mainline railroads is 4 feet, 8 ½ inches—or 56 ½ total inches. But many industrial operations used less expensive narrow-gauge track. Plymouth built to suit anything from standard gauge down to 18 inches. Furthermore, Plymouth’s spring suspensions and short wheelbases were well suited to rough track with sharp curves.
Over the years, Plymouth also offered different engines and drivetrains. While our locomotive burned gasoline, other Plymouth engines used diesel fuel. (Note that these diesel Plymouths were still mechanically driven. They should not be confused with diesel-electric locomotives, which drive their wheels with electric motors.) In the mid-1940s, Plymouth introduced smooth-running torque converter fluid couplings as an improvement over its earlier mechanical clutches.
Industrial railroads may have been Plymouth’s main customers, but they weren’t the only ones. The company also sold locomotives to temporary railways—those built and used for construction projects like dams, bridges, and highways. Plymouth locomotives were practical, flexible machines that served an important niche market.
Our 1927 Plymouth locomotive earlier in its life, moving coal cars around Detroit’s Mistersky Power Plant, circa 1930. / THF113043
Our Plymouth locomotive was ordered by the Detroit Public Lighting Department—predecessor of today’s DTE Energy—in 1927 at a price of $6,800. It was delivered to the Mistersky Power Plant, a coal-fueled generating station located four miles southwest of downtown Detroit. The 14-ton locomotive spent the next four decades shuttling coal-filled hopper cars around the plant. The Plymouth was retired around 1970 and spent its last years at the plant sitting unused. It came to The Henry Ford in 1980. Today it’s used to move locomotives and cars around the roundhouse and yard in Greenfield Village—just the sort of job a Plymouth was designed to do.
As for the Fate-Root-Heath Company, it was acquired by Banner Industries in the 1960s and renamed Plymouth Locomotive Works. In 1997, Ohio Locomotive Crane bought the firm and, two years later, relocated it to Bucyrus, Ohio, not far from Plymouth. The company no longer builds new locomotives, but spare parts are made under license by other manufacturers. As for the work once done by Plymouth locomotives, while many shippers transitioned to trucks and highways, there are still industries that rely on rail transportation. Many of them now use motorized railcar movers—rubber-tired tractors with auxiliary flanged wheels and railroad couplers. These modern movers offer all the advantages of a Plymouth, but with greater flexibility.
There’s an interesting coda to our Plymouth’s story. Throughout its life at the Mistersky Plant, the locomotive was operated by engineer Charles Vaughn. Born and raised in Indiana, Vaughn moved to Detroit to work on the construction of the Mistersky facility. When that was done, he stayed on to operate the locomotive. Vaughn had no prior experience in railroading but, with an easy-to-run Plymouth, that wasn’t as issue. Mr. Vaughn remained at Mistersky for 45 years before retiring in 1972. In recognition of his long service, Vaughn’s co-workers presented him with the Plymouth’s bell and whistle as parting gifts. (The locomotive’s retirement came before Vaughn’s, so those safety appliances were no longer needed.)
The Plymouth’s original bell, once a retirement gift and now reunited with the locomotive. / THF188367
Charles Vaughn passed away in 1982, but his family held on to the bell and whistle. In 2013, Mr. Vaughn’s family decided to reunite the items with the locomotive. They gifted the bell and whistle to The Henry Ford, and we put them right back onto the Plymouth. We’d like to think Mr. Vaughn would’ve appreciated that thoughtful gesture by his descendants—and the fact that Greenfield Village visitors can still see (and hear) the little locomotive with which he spent so much of his career.
In the face of a challenge, a walk is one of the best ways to jump-start imagination and pave a creative path forward. Take that walk in nature, or, better yet, spend a few days in nature without technology, and research shows our problem-solving abilities soar by as much as 50%.
Inventors and problem solvers need a constant supply of potent inspiration. Books and journal articles, as well as brainstorms with mentors, colleagues, and friends, help. However, in many instances our greatest teacher lives right outside our doors. There, we can find knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a solid track record of success. Nature has the answers we need to solve every problem—if only we know where to look and how to ask the right questions.
Illustration by James Round
What Is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Whether we’re working on a challenge related to product development, process generation, policy creation, or organizational design, one of the smartest questions we can ask is: “What would nature do?” Asking this question, and then studying nature to find the answers, is a way to discover new sustainable solutions that solve our design challenges without negatively impacting the planet.
Undoubtedly, biomimicry is best learned by doing. It’s a field that requires us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts as we roll up our sleeves to dig deep (sometimes literally into the dirt) to understand, interpret, and then utilize nature’s design principles to solve the challenges we face in our lives.
“Biomimicry applies strategies from the natural world to solve human design challenges,” said Alexandra Ralevski, Ph.D., director of AskNature at the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montana. “This is a field that has the power to radically transform any industry.”
Being a Bridge: Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute
With varied fields of expertise, including scientific knowledge, business planning, design thinking, and operations, to name just a few, practitioners of biomimicry serve as the bridge between professional groups like scientists, business managers, policymakers, engineers, and designers, who are often siloed from one another.
If all the world is an orchestra of voices, those who study biomimicry are the conductors making room for each of them, ensuring that they rise, shine, and harmonize together for the benefit of all.
It’s impossible to utter a single word about the theory and practice of biomimicry without paying homage to Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed “nature nerd.” Benyus’ groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has made its way onto bookshelves and into the hearts, hands, and minds of problem solvers.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. / Photo courtesy of Biomimicry Institute
“We’re awake now,” she said. “And the question is, how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”
To explore this question and bring passionate and multitalented collaborators into community with one another, Benyus co-founded the nonprofit that would become the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana.
Over a decade later, the organization continues to provide education, support, and innovation inspiration for anyone and everyone who wants to bring the study and application of nature’s design genius into their work and into their lives.
One of the best ways to illustrate biomimicry’s power is to look at some examples.
Whales and Wind
A trio composed of a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur created the most efficient fans and turbines in the world through inspiration found in humpback whales. On the surface, this may seem like an odd connection. How could humpback whales possibly teach a highly skilled group to build a turbine? It turns out that these whales were experts at the exact function these humans wanted to achieve.
The bumps on a humpback whale’s flipper are nature’s answer to what makes a wind turbine extra efficient. / Illustration by James Round
Humpback whales are among the world’s most agile animals. Though they can reach 16 meters (52 feet) in length and 40 tons in weight, they can lift a large portion of their bodies up out of the ocean and into the air in an acrobatic feat that leaves whale watchers breathless. A single jump or leap (called a breach) requires humpback whales to expend only 0.075% of their daily energy intake. Not only is the breach a stunning display of athleticism, it’s also a remarkably efficient action.
Marine biologist Frank Fish suspected the bumps (called tubercles) on the leading edges of the whale’s flippers held the secret to bending the ocean waters to their will. Working with Fish to study this mystery was engineer Phillip Watts. “I had been working in biomechanics and understood the importance of biomimicry, drawing engineering ideas from evolution,” shared Watts.
Together, Fish and Watts found that humpback whales achieved a rare point of design greatness: The tubercles on their flippers could increase lift while simultaneously reducing drag—a genius combination that gives these magnificent creatures such remarkable agility.
Along with a third collaborator, entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, Fish and Watts decided to model their turbine design on the humpback’s flippers. Not surprisingly, their newly fabricated turbines not only produced supreme performance like the whale’s but were highly efficient. Soon after, the trio’s newly formed corporation, WhalePower, became a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient rotating devices for various applications.
“Because nature had done so much work on this [for us],” said Dewar, “we were able to understand what was possible.”
For the Birds
Transportation aficionados know that Japan’s Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, is one of the world’s finest examples of efficient and elegant design. What many people don’t know is that the Shinkansen has a bird to thank for its performance. Known for its silent diving abilities, the kingfisher can break the water while barely making a sound or a splash to claim its favorite meal—minnows and stickleback fish.
The sleek shape of a certain bird’s beak is nature’s answer to conquering a bullet train’s unwelcome sonic boom. / Illustration by James Round
Shinkansen engineers faced a serious structural challenge while designing the bullet train: It created a sonic boom as it emerged from tunnels at high speeds. One of the team’s engineers, who had observed the kingfisher’s precise diving technique, suggested they mimic the bird’s beak shape in the train’s design. Voila! The sonic boom disappeared.
The bullet train’s unique design also had other unforeseen benefits. Its new nose safely increased travel speeds, lowered fuel consumption, and reduced operating costs.
Nature-Inspired Agriculture Infrastructure
A beehive’s structure, a spider web’s power of attraction, and an ice plant’s water storage system are nature’s answers to creating more sustainable food systems. / Illustration by James Round
To promote local agriculture, NexLoop focuses on creating renewable water infrastructure for sustainable food systems. Its main product, AquaWeb, captures, stores and distributes just the right amount of water at just the right time for local food production.
How does it strike this balance? AquaWeb takes its cues from the efficiency of nature, incorporating learnings from multiple organisms: beehives to create structural strength, spider webs to capture water, ice plants to store water and mycelium to distribute water.
Restoring Nature Using Nature’s Models
Biomimicry also guided the strategy of Nucleário, winner of the Ray of Hope Prize, an initiative of the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Company founders wanted to repopulate the forests of their home country, Brazil, where young tree seedlings face overwhelmingly adverse survival odds. Their roots are choked by grasses while their leaves are devoured by leaf-cutter ants.
Of the small handful of trees that reach their first birthday, 95% don’t live to see their second. It’s these long-shot odds that Nucleário sought to combat.
Like NexLoop, Nucleário combined the designs of several natural models to create its tree seedling pods—from the protective abilities of leaf litter and water accumulation talents of bromeliads (think of a pineapple) to the graceful air dispersal skills of anemocoric seeds.
“Our connection to nature and deep-rooted gratitude for all life inspires and sustains us,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. “We look to nature to guide our decisions, from design to raw material selection and everything in between.”
Combining the natural models that inspired them, Nucleário’s founders have built a planting system that provides protection as well as nutrient and moisture maintenance with less human intervention and tending. Their design is both lightweight and strong, with water chambers that collect and distribute water the same way nature does.
Hooked by Nature
Burdock burrs inspired the creation of Velcro during the mid-20th century.
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was hunting and noticed his pants were covered with burdock burrs. He wondered how the seedpods could hold on and took to his microscope, examining the burrs’ “hooks” and the way they clung to fabric. After years of research, de Mestral was granted a U.S. patent in 1955 for what became Velcro, his famous hook-and-loop fastener.
What’s Next in Biomimicry?
“Using nature as a model for sustainability means that we always have a benchmark for our designs,” said AskNature’s Ralevski. “This benchmarking is critical to determine success and improve our iterations.”
A hallmark of nature, and by extension biomimicry, is that there is a progression of continuous improvement over time within the context of a specific situation—which could include the geography, environmental circumstances, and economic situation in which a design solution must exist and operate.
Biomimicry successes in energy management, transportation, and architectural design are spurring design experiments in fields as varied as medicine, materials science, textiles, and urban planning. We’re also beginning to see social science applications of biomimicry in community organizations, economic development, and communication systems.
“Biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug,” said Janine Benyus. “It will be gratitude and an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."
To explore some examples of biomimicry in artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford, check out this expert set.
One of those students was Emma Kaipainen, an 11th grader from Michigan. Emma created the Walking Shipping Container Home and won the Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Award presented by the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation. Emma wanted to solve the problem of homes being destroyed by receding shorelines. Her invention is a house comprised of shipping containers, which uses electric rod actuators to power “legs” which allow the house to “walk” away from the shoreline.
The team of Nicolette Buonora and Lauren Strechay, two 9th graders from Massachusetts, were also focused on sustainability. Nicolette and Lauren created the Battery Swap and won the Most Energy Sustainable Award presented by the Avangrid Foundation. Battery Swap is a flashlight with a unique design—it has an extra switch that can divert power between two battery packs. This invention, designed with police officers in mind, solves the problem of a flashlight unexpectedly running out of power. With the Battery Swap, when the flashlight turns off, the user is able to switch to the back-up battery.
Thanks to The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and the Avangrid Foundation for funding these awards and the curriculum enhancements which helped students unlock their full invention potential!
To learn more about these inventions and our other award winners, check out the full awards ceremony below.
Off at the back of the museum’s Made in America: Power exhibit is a rangy apparatus—a water pump made mostly of wood, mounted on a granite plinth. Its business end, a clanking group of wrought- and cast-iron components, represents a beginning point for the technology seen in full flower in the Allegheny locomotive in the Railroads exhibit. Institutionally, we are fortunate in having both the world’s oldest surviving steam engine and one of the most advanced examples of reciprocating steam technology as applied to railroads.
The Newcomen Engine, circa 1750—the world’s oldest surviving steam engine. / THF110472
The importance of the Allegheny locomotive—both institutionally and historically—is hard to overstate. It is both straightforward and paradoxical: an overwhelming machine that has great human appeal; close at hand and yet impossible to fully take in; a blunt instrument of industrial efficiency enshrined on a teakwood floor in an approachable museum setting. In short, it is both plainly stated and chameleon-like—a perfect museum artifact.
Historically, it represents a technology played to the limit of tight physical constraints imposed by a railroad’s right-of-way (sharpness of curves, size of adjacent structures, axle loading of track and bridges). The Allegheny represents a masterfully trim packaging of all the components necessary to make an efficient steam locomotive—a technology pushed to a particular limit with spectacular results.
The refinements embodied by the Allegheny were the result of the Lima Locomotive Company’s chief mechanical engineer, William Woodard, and his relentless pursuit of “superpower.” His success was borne out by designs that demonstrated a 25 to 30 percent increase in efficiency—success that resulted in a steam design revolution that spread to all American locomotive manufacturers.
Ingersoll-Rand Number 90 Diesel-Electric Locomotive, 1926 / THF67890
Despite its virtually complete lack of visual charm (not a shred of rugged elegance here; this is the classic “box on wheels”), the Ingersoll-Rand Diesel-Electric Locomotive on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is actually one of the most significant items in our railroad collections. This engine was part of a calculated and savvy business move by Ingersoll-Rand (partnering with General Electric and American Locomotive) to produce a new locomotive type to challenge the steam locomotive—a deliberate attempt to break into the massive railroad market using internal combustion technology. While Ingersoll-Rand never really gained a foothold in the field, its venture played a successful part in the practical demonstration of this new form of motive power.
Hindsight suggests certain inevitability in the demise of the steam locomotive—an inflexible and inefficient mechanism compared with the modular, easily deployed workhorse diesel. From a 1920s perspective, however, the diesel had little going for it. Overly complex and unproven, it seemed a minor interloper in an industry with so much invested—both monetarily and intellectually—in what was then a mature and refined technology. Even then, however, there were factors starting to work against the all-pervasive steam locomotive, specifically the mid-1920s moves by New York City and Chicago to ban the use of steam locomotives within their city limits on account of pollution concerns—fertile soil for the growth of alternative technologies.
Ingersoll-Rand's Diesel-Electric Locomotive #90 in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 1926. Ingersoll-Rand used the locomotive in the railyard at its Phillipsburg plant for some 40 years. Donated to The Henry Ford in 1970, the locomotive received a cosmetic restoration in 1983. / THF271022
There is a touch of David and Goliath about this artifact when viewed in the context of the sheer numbers of steam locomotives then in service. This and other units like it were the unassuming thin end of a wedge that was to revolutionize the railroad scene. In 1925, there was just one diesel to 63,612 steam locomotives in mainline service in the United States; by 1945, there were 3,816 diesels to 38,853 steam locomotives; and by 1960, the final year for steam on Class I railroads here, there were 28,278 diesels to 261 steam locomotives.
Explore our Ingersoll-Rand locomotive and the transition from steam to internal combustion power further here.
This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”
We hope you enjoyed this week’s experiences focused on Power and Energy. Were you inspired to create or invent something? Please share your photos with us on social media using #WeAreInnovationNation!
If you missed anything from our series this past week, check out the recordings and resources below. We hope that you will join us this upcoming week to explore new themes drawn from our Model i Learning Framework, beginning with Be Empathetic.
What We Covered This Week Power & Energy: How is power created?
#Innovation Nation Watch segments related to power and energy from The Henry Ford's Innovation Nationhere.
Innovation Journeys Live! Join us for an Innovation Journey Live when Jessica Robinson, our Entrepreneur in Residence, and Matt Anderson, our Curator of Transportation, talk about electric and autonomous cars. Watch the video here.
Kid Inventor Our Friday segment will be a little different this week as we hear from Attorney Michael “Max” Sneyd, an attorney at Kerr, Russell and Weber, PLC in Detroit, Michigan all about patents, copyrights and trademarks. This is a great opportunity for all of our invention convention participants to learn the difference between each, what you might need and what might not apply to your invention, what to consider when developing your invention, how to apply for a patent, copyright, or trademark, how long it takes, and how families can support their inventors in the application process. Watch the interview here.
Learn more below about how our Invention Convention Curriculum activities can to keep your child innovating.
Resource Highlight: Invention convention Curriculum In our continued efforts to help parents, students and educators during these times of uncertainty, The Henry Ford is providing helpful tips that assist parents in adapting its educational tools for implementation at home.
This week we are highlighting a lesson from the Invention Convention Curriculum. The program is open to students in grades K-12. The lessons teach students skills that will give young innovators the chance to design, build, and pitch an original invention to their peers and judges. Competitions are held at local or regional levels and those qualifying move on to state competition. State qualifiers can then compete at the Invention Convention U.S. Nationals held here at The Henry Ford.
Our Invention Convention curriculum takes young inventors through the complete process of inventing. The activities in our curriculum take young inventors through the seven steps of the invention process. These 7 steps provide the framework for the heart of the Invention Convention curriculum. The lessons are organized by step: - Identifying - Understanding - Ideating - Designing - Building - Testing - Communicating
Entrepreneurship lessons are also added. We have designed the activities to build skills in invention and engineering while supporting the creation of your students’ very own inventions. You can learn more about the Invention Convention Curriculum Link here. Parents and educators can learn more about Model i here.
Janice Warju is Coordinator, Learning Content Development, at The Henry Ford.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 1916, gasoline was cheap, and no one cared about tailpipe emissions. But this hybrid wasn’t about fuel prices or pollution. Woods Motor Vehicle Company built it to capture new customers. Sales of the company’s electric cars were falling as more people chose gasoline-burning cars. The Dual-Power supposedly combined the best of both, but customers disagreed. The car and the company disappeared in 1918.
This 1913 Woods Electric was much like other companies’ electric cars. Sales of all electrics—not just Woods—declined in the teens. THF103736
The 1916 Dual-Power’s gasoline engine and electric motor are under the hood, connected by a magnetic clutch. Its battery box is under the seat, toward the rear.” THF103732
Woods used surprisingly antiquated imagery in the logo for the Dual-Power. Perhaps the company was trying to assure potential buyers that its radical new car was as reliable as the familiar horse. THF103741
In October 2017, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation was awarded another Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant, allowing us to continue working to catalog, conserve, package, and rehouse over 3,000 items out of our Collections Storage Building. We've had the opportunity to work with some very interesting objects for this grant, from agricultural equipment to advertisement signs. There is a wide array of objects passing through the labs, visible to the public through the windows at the back of the museum.
This spring we treated many batteries made by Thomas Edison. Most of these originated from the late 19th century and varied in condition and composition. These early battery types consist of metal plates that were immersed in an electrolyte solution to generate electricity. The batteries themselves were stable and safe to handle because they contained no electrolyte. The batteries with unknown compositions sparked our curiosity (pun intended), since we needed to know what they were made of so that we could properly conserve them.
Sometimes while working in the lab, we need specialized equipment that we may not have on site. Fortunately, museums often work collaboratively to help each other find solutions. In this case, we collaborated with Conservation Scientist Christina Bisulca and the well-equipped analytical conservation lab at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA had the right tool for the job - a high-powered optical microscope and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. An XRF spectrometer is essential to conservators because it is used to identify metals. It uses an X-ray beam to produce enough energy to excite electrons within the atoms of metal elements. When that energy is released, a specific signal is registered within the XRF spectrometer and the metal is identified.
The DIA’s XRF spectrometer analyzing the central core of one of the batteries. (Photo courtesy of Misty Grumbley.)
At the beginning of March, we brought several batteries to test at the DIA, including an Edison-Lalande battery, a Samson battery, and an Edison S-Type battery. The Edison S-type battery was particularly interesting, since we were not able to find any similar batteries to compare it to, and could not confirm the materials used through research alone.