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The Unofficial History of the Hybrid and Electric Car: Getting a Charge Out of It

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In April of 2012, General Electric started selling electric vehicle recharging stations under the brand name Wattstation, offering wall mounted home units and pedestal commercial chargers. GE joined companies like AV, Blink and Nissan in offering EV charging units. This isn’t the first time, though, that GE has sold devices to charge EV batteries.

In the early days of the automobile, the primacy of gasoline power wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Studebaker’s first cars were powered by electric batteries and a number of companies had a flush of success selling electric cars, while guys like David Buick and Charles Kettering were slowly and incrementally making gasoline a more practical power source for transportation. Those electric cars, as today’s EVs do, needed to be recharged, and Schenectady’s General Electric Co., a century before the Wattstation, sold chargers.

Back in the day
In the brass era, gasoline had a decided disadvantage. While it’s a superior fuel, with 114,000 BTU of energy per gallon, at the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t a gasoline station on every corner. Electricity, on the other hand, was available in many, if not most, American urban homes by the early 20th century. Henry Ford left his job as chief operating engineer of Detroit’s Edison Illuminating Company to start his first automotive enterprise. Unlike with gasoline powered cars, people could refuel their electric cars at home. Still, as now, EV enthusiasts needed some kind of charging device. Though Thomas Edison had bet on direct current, Westinghouse’s Charles Steinmetz had proven mathematically that alternating current was superior for commercial distribution of electricity. 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.

Even to this date in 2012, the most successful electric car ever in terms of sales was the Detroit Electric made by the Anderson company. Approximately 20,000+ Detroit Electric cars were made and sold 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 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, made by, you guessed it, General Electric.

Charged up
By 1914, General Electric 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 Nissan Leaf or a Chevrolet 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 pedestal units.

Things have changed a bit in 100 years, though. With its 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. On the other hand, the MAR could do double duty as a tanning lamp, as the arcing electricity was an outstanding source of ultraviolet light.

Mercury Arc Rectifier - YouTube

As complicated as the GE MAR appears to us, it was sold as a consumer appliance and as with electric cars in general, it was heavily marketed to women. Many of the promotional materials for GE’s car charger showed women operating them. It was the time of women’s suffrage and though there were plenty of patronizing attitudes toward females, they weren’t assumed to be incapable of operating the rectifier. Back then people in general weren’t assumed to be idiots and companies rarely got sued for selling dangerous products. A GE brochure from the time describes how to start up the MAR.

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 containing mercury] is rocked [on its gimbal] to form the necessary starting arc. As soon as the arc is formed, the starting swtich is released, and it automatically springs into the load position, when the rectifier begins charging the storage battery.

1908 Car Battery Charger with Mercury Arc Rectifier - YouTube

Got that? As easy as charging your iPhone, right?

Like GE, Blink, AV and other companies that offer commercial units to hotels and parking garage operators, GE did offer “Public Garage Type Rectifiers” which had the capacity to charge multiple vehicles in parallel. While today’s EV charger’s manufacturers tout their units’ “ smart” capabilities, the ability to communicate and share power with the electrical grid, a century ago 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 overcharging and other problems. Modern EVs’ battery management systems prevent such problems so it’s no longer an issue for charger manufacturers.

This article is the first in an occasional series.

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