Alternative Power Was Cars' First Fuel

The Anthony i i

hide captionOne of the first cars built in Los Angeles, this spindly vehicle was constructed by 17-year-old Earle C. Anthony using lumber, wheelchair gears, bicycle forks and other materials.

Courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum
The Anthony

One of the first cars built in Los Angeles, this spindly vehicle was constructed by 17-year-old Earle C. Anthony using lumber, wheelchair gears, bicycle forks and other materials.

Courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum
The Woods Dual Power i i

hide captionThe Woods Dual Power, built in 1917 in Chicago, was an early predecessor to the Toyota Prius.

Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum
The Woods Dual Power

The Woods Dual Power, built in 1917 in Chicago, was an early predecessor to the Toyota Prius.

Courtesy of the Petersen Automotive Museum

The desire to build vehicles that run on alternative power dates back to long before cars even existed.

This history is chronicled in an exhibit called "Alternative Power: Lessons from the Past, Inspiration from the Future" at Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. A visit to the exhibit sheds light on the challenges of vehicle innovation.

Fed Up With Horses

Horses were never an ideal power source — they required feeding, care and, of course, they had their own emissions issues. Fed up with the temperamental animals, crafty inventors started making horseless vehicles. Originals of some of these are featured at the Peterson Museum.

In 1897 in Los Angeles, for example, 17-year-old Earl Anthony created the "Anthony:" more or less a wood box on bicycle wheels powered by an electric battery.

"He used lumber, he used wheelchair parts and he built his own engine, which he called a dynamo, from scratch," explains Petersen Museum curator Leslie Kendall. "It must have looked like it landed from the moon in 1887 because it went under its own power."

The Anthony could reach 10 miles per hour — an extremely scary speed given the condition of the roads back then, Kendall says. Not only did the vehicle fail to handle well, it couldn't go far without running out of juice.

Gas-Electric Hybrids

By the early 1900s, thanks to the discovery of oil in Texas, gasoline was readily available. Unfortunately, it was stinky, and gas-powered engines were loud and messy to start.

Looking for something better, innovators began experimenting with gas-electric hybrids around 1902. The Petersen Museum features one the earliest creations: a large, boxy tank, completely unlike the Toyota Prius, built in 1917 by the Woods Company of Chicago.

"You could adjust the power input from the four cylinder engine or the electric motor depending on how fast you needed to go, how much gas and battery you had left," Kendall says. "So it could be 100 percent gas, 100 percent electric or both."

Although it was a flexible system, it was rife with problems.

"Back then, instead of embodying the best qualities of both power sources, they embodied the worst qualities of both power sources," Kendall says. Ultimately, it resulted in a vehicle that was "too heavy, too complicated, very expensive and intimidating for mechanics to work on."

Other Alternatives

Innovators also experimented with steam, creating a vehicle in 1909 which looks a little like something the Beverly Hillbillies would have ridden into town. Getting it started involved a lot more than a simple turn of the key.

"You needed to build up a head of steam which involved going out and lighting the boiler, making sure you had filtered water in there, and then waiting a little bit of time before you got literally a head of steam that would propel you down the road," Kendall says.

No source of energy was off limits. The museum features the 1957 Studebaker Packard designed to run on atomic energy (never built due to safety concerns) and the 1988 Mana La powered by solar energy. The latter vehicle could get up to speeds of 85 miles per hour, but its dependence on the sun made it useless on cloudy days and at night.

The Future of Alternative Energy

Technology has come a long way, but the real issue is whether people are open to innovation, says museum director Dick Messer.

"There's guys sitting right now here in major companies that probably have the answers to these problems, but the boss says 'Nah, that's not going to work' and that's the end of it," Messer says.

He says he won't be too surprised if years from now the museum's collection includes a lot more alternative-powered cars created by 17-year-old kids — in L.A.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: