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John Petersen is the executive vice president and chief financial officer of ePower Engine Systems, Inc., a Kentucky-based enterprise that has developed, built and demonstrated an engine-dominant diesel-electric hybrid drivetrain for long-haul heavy trucks that promises fuel savings of 30 to 40... More
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  • 1883 Interview With Thomas Edison On Energy Storage 19 comments
    Dec 9, 2013 8:37 PM

    While I don't normally copy the published works of others because of legal restrictions under the copyright laws, I just found an online copy of the 1883 Thomas Edison interview that was the source of the quotes I love so much. I particularly like the closing sentence in the first paragraph.


    FEBRUARY 17, 1883


    [The New York Sunday Herald for January 28 gives the report of an interview with Mr. Edison. We this week give that part of the report dealing with storage batteries, and hope to give that dealing with lighting in our next issue. We have left out some of the more strongly worded sentences, and also the names, inasmuch as these do not affect the argument.-Ed. E.]

    "The storage battery is, in my opinion, a catch-penny, a sensation, a mechanism for swindling by stocking companies. The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeal to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very self-same thing. In 1879 I took up that question, and devised a system of placing storage batteries in houses connected to mains and charging them in the day time, to be discharged in the evening and night to run incandescent lamps. I had the thing patented in 1879 (I forget the date of the patent), but there is nothing in it. I rung all the changes on it. My plates were prepared like Plante's. The method of preparing them for charging is more tedious, but it is better than that of Faure, after preparation. You know the first storage battery was sent from France by Faure to Sir William Thomson, who was at first astounded by it. He was asked to endorse it, consented, and took a retainer; but, on investigation, he became convinced that there was nothing in it, and returned the retainer to the French company. The fact is, the more he investigated the more he found out the fallacy of the whole business. On account of what Labouchere calls a swindle this secondary battery has been used by the arc companies in England. One company alone, on the strength of an accumulator and an incandescent lamp copied from mine by _______, floated subsidiary companies whose aggregate capital was over 30,000,000 dollars, and immense sums were paid by these companies to the parent company for rights. This was the great _______ electric light bubble, in which millions were lost, and caused the now celebrated article of Labouchere. One of the leading spirits in the bubble is in this country at the present time attempting to do the same; but Carlyle's saying about 30,000,000 fools probably did not apply to foreign countries.

    "Scientifically, storage is all right, but, commercially, as absolute a failure as one can imagine. You can store it and hold it, but it is gradually lost, and will all go in time. Its efficiency, after a certain number of charges have been sustained, begins to diminish, and its capacity and efficiency both diminish after a certain time in use, necessitating an increased number of batteries to maintain a constant output. Owing to corrosion of the sustaining plates of the battery, the effect of local action, and other causes, too many to enumerate, the yearly depreciation of the battery is not less than 30 per cent, of its first cost if used daily. The facts are that there are two or three companies that have been organising subsidiary arc light companies throughout the country for some time past. In this arrangement the parent company made money by selling machinery, &c, to the working companies, but the latter are not making money, and have nearly ceased giving new orders. Now these parent companies, finding the call for machinery slacking, have come in with their secondary batteries. They now make this statement, which is the cleverest thing I ever heard of. Here, gentlemen, you have a large investment in machinery, &c, for furnishing light, but are not making any money out of it. Now, we have something by which you can utilise your machinery. You can work day and night, and can do more work. You can utilise your present plant in the daytime, and the electricity thus made in the daytime for incandescent lighting, and in the night have your plant for arc lighting direct. That sounds good and fair, does it not? The board of directors discuss the offer, and think it a good thing. Then they conclude to go into it. You know," said Mr. Edison, with something of contempt in his tone, "what the wisdom of the average board of directors amounts to. I will tell you where the fallacy in this arrangement lies. It consists in the fact that the cost of batteries to store this extra electricity that could be produced in the daytime would be twice as much as that of the station that produced it; so that, if the company has already 100,000dols. invested, and agree to utilise their machinery in the daytime by the addition of storage batteries, they will find that to carry out their desire it will cost them 200.000dols. for the batteries. I will guarantee that not one board of directors in a hundred will see it, and the parent company will not tell them of it until after they have purchased. It seems to be natural with boards of directors that if there be a wrong way to do a thing they will surely do it that way. Well, they have purchased the storage batteries, of course, at a cost of 200,000dols. On that investment, at the end of the first year, they have a depreciation of 30 per cent. To save themselves they will have to earn interest on their investment. They must, earn enough to meet the extra depreciation on their plant running through the day, and will have to spend double the amount in coal to obtain the same output from the batteries, for the reason that they interpose between the source of energy and the light, a thing in which there is a loss both in charging and discharging, and a loss in standing, and that loss increases as the battery gets older, after a certain maximum is reached."

    "What is the maximum of a storage battery?"

    "It is about 50 per cent. You get the maximum of current when you utilise the full capacity of the battery, the same as in a steam engine, where, if steam is admitted for the full stroke, 50 per cent, of the steam or power is wasted, but you obtain the maximum power from the engine; but this is also the minimum of economy. Hence, to get the proper economy, engine builders only take one-third to one-fourth of the maximum power from their engines, but this adds to the investment, which is compensensated for by the saving in economy, which more than pays interest on increased investment. When they say that 90 per cent, is obtained from the battery they tell you what is scientifically true. They say they get 10 lights of 16 candles each per horse-power of current from a battery. Now that is true, and it is not true. If you get a horse-power of current from a battery it will give you 10 lights of 16 candles; but to get that you have to net all losses through the battery, through the wires, through the dynamo, and all that. They start off with a horse-power indicated in the engine. A certain amount of this is taken to move the engine and dynamo, and a certain amount is lost in the dynamo to convert power into electricity, because no machine is perfect; a certain amount must be lost on the wire connecting the station with the secondary battery; another amount is lost in charging the battery, due to its resistance and imperfection as a mechanism; another amount is lost during the interim between charging and use; another portion will be lost in discharging the battery through the lamps, and still another amount will be lost in the wire connecting the battery to the lamp. So that your horsepower will dwindle down until it will give you only about three lamps; whereas, if you worked direct you would probably get six lamps."

    " You are hard on the battery folks."

    "The reason I am down on these people is because I have a legitimate thing, and there is a loss of public confidence in it through their operations. We have never yet asked the public for money. Now, I don't want the people swindled, for I want our company to make money out of electric lighting in a legitimate way, by giving value for what is received, and, if it sells rights, to first prove to the purchasers their value by results, obtained in actual practice upon a large commercial scale, as is now being done, and the exposure of such things would make it much easier and better for me to advance my system on its true merits. The same swindle which it is designed to perpetrate upon the people of this country has already been carried out in England, and as a result people there have lost all confidence in electric lighting. The same people are here. We have entered suits against them in England, France, and other countries, and will sue them here. But these people know well that it will take some time to get a suit decided, and by that time they will have 'permitted the public to invest heavily.'"

    "Then you consider storage batteries wholly impracticable. Is there no hope for their doing good, legitimate work?"

    "None whatever. Except in a very limited number of cases, storage of gas could be made analogous to storage of electricity. One of the principal outlays of a gas company is for pipes. The average diameter of their mains is five or six inches. But, under pressure greater than they now force the gas through their mains, an inch pipe would answer under the storage principle of having a small gasometer in every house. The difference saved to the company by this arrangement would be about 15dols. for pipes from house to house, 20 to 30 feet apart. But the gasometer would cost a great deal more in each house than the 25ft. of pipe buried in the street. Besides, gasometers might not be just the thing in the hands of the public; there might be explosions; some of them might not have the room. The gasometer would require some little mechanism to reduce the pressure down to a limit where it could be burnt. Now, these little mechanisms are uncertain. The general intelligence of the public, when applied to mechanism, is also uncertain; and this has probably prevented gas engineers from introducing a system of local storage. The Electric Arc Company, which is seeking to introduce a system of storage, follow out the above idea exactly. Instead of using large conductors and low pressure electricity, as I do, they propose to save on the investment by using small conductors and high pressure electricity; and, to make this kind of electricity available, they reduce its pressure by means of a storage battery in the same way as high pressure gas in a small main could be stored in a gasometer and its pressure reduced to make it available. In the first place, the high pressure current is very dangerous to life. The depreciation on storage batteries alone, in a system of general distribution, would pay the interest on the extra copper sufficient to dispense with their use; and, second, if these small wires, carrying high pressure currents, were to be placed underground, as all systems must be to be financially permanent in large cities, the extra cost of the insulation necessary to prevent the leakage of the currents of so powerful a pressure would more than pay for the extra copper used in a system which carry low pressure currents and do not require so expensive nor so great an amount of insulation. The cost of our mains is about 15dols. from house to house. Those mains are two feet underground, where the intellectual portion of the public cannot reach it to improve it, while with storage batteries, from 75dole. to 200dols. worth of batteries would be placed in each house to save about 9dols. in copper and interpose an uncertain device in which 50 per cent, of the article to be sold is lost." Mr. Edison here paused a moment, held down his head, and, quickly raising it again, said, in his quaint way, "Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying."

    "But suppose power was cheap, such as a water power, would it not pay to store electricity even at a great sacrifice of energy?"

    "In utilising water power, even where the cost of water is, say nearly nothing, there is still the cost of plant for storing to be considered, and interest and depreciation added. Where is the use of this outlay when, in nearly every case, by connecting the dynamo direct with the turbine you can get the same result far more cheaply? But you will remember that water power is not so cheap after all. It is only occasionally you can run across a water power that has a surplus in every month in the year beyond the wants of those who utilise it. These storage men will tell you that lamps burn better fed from batteries than from the source of power direct. This is not so. They are very brilliant when they start, but more battery must be put on from time to time, or they will soon go down. If you have a battery that will run ten lights, and wish to run them until 10 o'clock p.m., you must have ether batteries to reinforce it, or the lamps will diminish in candle-power before the expiration of the time it is rated for. Then, alter turning off the lights, the batteries will lose about one-fifth of the charge remaining in them before being recharged. There is a natural law working against the storage battery, and that is that finely divided lead decomposes water. It is stated that when Sir William Thomson had his attention called to this fact he threw up the sponge. All metals are fuel. When oxidised they are ashes, and it takes energy to put them back again into a metallic form, when it is again fuel. Mr. Brush may say he has a secret compound. It is nothing more than a salt of lead. They use lead, and their battery is nothing more than a Faure battery, plain and simple. They say they cannot furnish these batteries for six months. There are shops in this city that could turn out 6,000 of their cells within three weeks."

    Themes: Energy storage
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Comments (19)
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  • Nice
    Edison was as smart as his reputation.
    9 Dec 2013, 09:06 PM Reply Like
  • "The general intelligence of the public, when applied to mechanism, is also uncertain"


    Humans and their gullibility and capacity for wishful thinking do not change in the span of 130 years.


    Thanks, John. A delightful treatise in modern scientific naiveté.
    9 Dec 2013, 09:37 PM Reply Like
  • I can't help but think that, if he were alive today, Thomas Edison would be an Axionista.


    10 Dec 2013, 12:17 PM Reply Like
  • Interesting how people can look at things differently. I would think he would point to his remarks and say you keep hoping for the best, but you keep getting let down. Didn't I tell you what to expect.
    10 Dec 2013, 12:32 PM Reply Like
  • I see your point, Stefan.


    But I think Edison's complaint is against cost-ineffective solutions that distract from more legitimate technological offerings.


    In that sense I think he would have the same dim opinion of Tesla that most of us share and would support the less sexy but more practical idle-start-stop, ePower, electric locomotive, etc applications where the PbC happens to fit.


    AXPW, as a stock price, continues to disappoint because investors, consumers, politicians and regulators are off chasing the wild lithium-ion-powered electric goose.


    11 Dec 2013, 12:26 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » I've written a discussion of the Edison interview for the Winter edition of Batteries International. While it probably won't be suitable for the main pages, I'll post a copy as an Instablog after the issue goes to press.
    11 Dec 2013, 12:34 PM Reply Like
  • Years ago, I ran across a quote from some mid 19th century scientist who dismissed all electric motors since any power provided would be less than the mechanical power produced to create the electricity. Edison demonstrates the same logic which serves to blind him to other possibilities. Forget modern electronics that he could not have predicted at the time of the article. But, think of the battery powered flashlight, more wasteful but more practical than a gas lantern, or think of those wasteful motors that open car windows at the push of a button, lest we have to turn a mechanical crank.


    To dream beyond the parameters of science may be delusional, but to let science dictate "practical" but not scientific limitations can act as a straightjacket to creative thought - even if you are as brilliant as Edison.
    11 Dec 2013, 09:33 AM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » Edison was a technical and economic pragmatist who saw the value of electric light in the 1800s and electric motors in the 1900s. He also saw the sophistry of wasting scarce and costly resources in the name of conserving plentiful and cheap resources. There were many promoters in the 1870s who claimed to know better than Edison, but they're all dead, buried and forgotten while Edison's name and innovations endure.
    11 Dec 2013, 10:58 AM Reply Like
  • And yet he worked for almost 10 years on perfecting an electric car, hardly blind by the possibilities.

    13 Dec 2013, 02:11 PM Reply Like
  • The battery and electric motor were strong contenders for passenger and freight vehicle power trains until the internal combustion engine became more practical in around 1912. It wasn't until after World War 2 that the American electric power "grid" was extensive enough to consider EVs again. However except in the cases where you needed enormous and instantaneous torque, such as in aircraft docking tow motors economics has defeated battery power. The automotive companies spent millions studying EV engineering between 1960 and 1990. The conclusion was that the limitations of EVs defeated their acceptance against internal combustion powered vehicles.
    The ONLY thing that has kept alive the EV idea is that IF there is "harmful" global warming caused by man made emissions of carbon dioxide then there is an urgent need to eliminate wherever possible the sources of carbon dioxide. Now that the global warming issue is fading and coming into ill repute as junk science the biggest driver (excuse the pun) for EVs is fading rapidly. If you cannot capitalize the environmental aspect the enterprise is still, today, an economic failure. The outcome of unprofitable schemes today, just as in Edison's day, and in Leonardo's day, and in Archimedes' day, is failure.
    1 Jan, 09:34 PM Reply Like
  • Jack - Climate change is increasingly accepted by those capable of understanding the evidence. That the right wing propaganda machine has managed to sway the opinion of Americans, unfortunately puts off to later what must be done to lessen its ravages.
    1 Jan, 09:48 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » You may want to read this Instablog Rich.

    2 Jan, 04:02 AM Reply Like
  • John - Thanks for the link. Insofar as globalization has caused a wealth transfer to poor countries where they can indulge in what we have come to take for granted, the correlation between CO2 and population is worrisome. But, as we know in the First World, the demographic transition to a stable or even a declining population, comes when an "advanced' lifestyle is achieved.


    I wonder if China, having long argued for the right of its people to catch up to the First World, and now living with the plight of pollution, might soon reverse its position and argue for carbon penalties, particularly considering its near monopoly in rare earths and its investment in solar and wind.
    2 Jan, 04:44 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » Nature has a nasty tendency to ruthlessly correct population imbalances for any species when they get too far out of whack. Solar and wind are politically correct, but they're basically useless for industrialized societies that need 24/7 grid stability and reliability. Germany is paying the price today for a headlong rush to renewables that just aren't working according to the master plan. The rest of the world isn't all that far behind.
    2 Jan, 05:01 PM Reply Like
  • John - No doubt that we humans like to follow the crowd. Here in Quebec, practically all our electricity is produced by Hydro. But we have gone with the tide and are increasingly installing wind even though we already produce more electricity than we use, and our new wind installations cost more than the Hydro we have. At least, with the adjustability of Hydro, the sporadicity of wind does not present a problem.
    2 Jan, 05:11 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » I lived in Switzerland for 15 years And loved life with an all hydro and nuclear grid. Unfortunately, the vast bulk of humanity don't live in places where a predominately hydro and nuclear grid is possible. Since there's only one atmosphere plans that don't take a global view and address the root cause of the problem invariably result in specious conclusions. I suppose what we really need is a good virulent plague to wipe out 90% of the population. You won't find me volunteering for that plan, but until we eliminate the root cause we'll be tilting at windmills.
    2 Jan, 05:36 PM Reply Like
  • "... with the adjustability of Hydro, the sprodicity of wind does not present a problem".


    Sorry, but Quebec will be Unlikely to evade problems with wind. Look into how much effort BPA must put into dealing with a lot of wind farms in the PNW. Also, despite typically plentiful hydro, electric rates are going up in the PNW. The rate increases may extend further than the PNW, since BPA has customers further afield, such as California.
    11 Jan, 07:56 PM Reply Like
  • nanooGeek - There are some problems that Quebec is likely to suffer very little further down the road. We will never get to the sporadicity of wind as a problem, because it will have been solved elsewhere or shown to be such a horrible problem that we will not approach the threshold. If global cooling were a looming problem, there we would be on the forefront of disaster.


    All this should seem inconsequential compared to John Petersen's Malthusian outlook for our planet. Perhaps because of Quebec's history, breeding like especially prolific rabbits in the 17th and 18th century, and presently depending on immigration lest there be a declining population, I am not so negative on the population outlook. What is necessary whatever the population outlook, is a less rapacious use of the world's resources, and one which does not irreversibly "poison the well" before our specie smartens up.
    12 Jan, 03:07 PM Reply Like
  • Author’s reply » Unfortunately, Mathus was right. He was right a little early, but that doesn't make him any less right in the long run.
    12 Jan, 04:14 PM Reply Like
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