A LEGACY OF GENIUS AND POWER
BY LARRY CRANE
At the beginning of the automotive century American gas-car makers were vigorously promoting their product against the limitations of the electrics and the steamers. All suffered from complex — primitive — science and a population of horsemen. Concurrently, Nikola Tesla was busy creating new sciences so profound they were unlikely to be even understood until the following century.
Futurist entrepreneur Colonel Alfred Pope made fine bicycles toward the same goal. He refitted his long narrow Columbia bicycle frame-tube plant in Hartford, Connecticut, as the Motor Carriage Department and within four years was delivering seven different types of electric-powered vehicles. Venture capitalist, William C. Whitney, offered $3,000,000 for a piece of the Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company.
As the new century arrived, J. Pierpont Morgan had a similar inspiration to support the fantastic scientific advances being accomplished by Nikola Tesla. Wardenclyff, his new laboratory for the study of electrical power transmission, was constructed in Shoreham, Long Island, including a 187-foot tower (and another 120 feet below ground) with its great copper dome from which Tesla planned to transmit enormous electrical current around the globe — for both power and signals. Tesla wrote that his 1901 tower’s ability to transmit information would someday allow the creation of “an inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, [which] will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song however distant.” (As the concept developed in his head, it became weaponized as a “Death Ray,” the idea of massive electrical power being focused across oceans to destroy military targets made Tesla even a bit more frightening — and reclusive.) Morgan finally asked, “If anyone can draw on the power, where do we put the meter?” Morgan’s support suddenly ended.
Electricity and steam were in competition to be the answer to personal transport for the new century. In fact, in 1899, the first self-propelled vehicle to exceed a-mile-per-minute was Camille Jenatzy’s double-ended bullet propelled by two 25kw motors fed by 200 volts and 124 amps, for a combined 68 horsepower. That established the world’s speed record. It was six years before the American Stanley brothers covered two miles in a minute in their steam-powered streamliner.
These two systems were in a “heated” battle with the noisy, smelly, explosive “infernal” combustion engine for the hearts, minds and bank drafts of the growing cadre of motorists considering their options. Then, of course, an exploratory oil well erupted conveniently on “Spindletop” hill in southeast Texas on January 10, 1901 and flowed 17,500,00 barrels in 1902, promising combustible energy forever. The following year Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker drove a gas-powered Winton from San Francisco to New York and introduced the automobile as the tool of independent travel, quite free of railroad routes — and schedules. They unwittingly set in motion the death of the electric coach as anything but an urban shopping car. Colonel Pope hedged Whitney’s capital by including one vehicle with a combustion engine in his product lineup. But Whitney soon bought him out and moved the business to New York City. The rebranded Electric Automobile Company’s most successful horseless product was the ubiquitous electric Hansom Cab.
Bring in Carl Fisher, a development partner in the Prest-O-Lite compressed acetylene auto headlight (the replacement for the carriage-light candle in a crystal vase), it quickly became a universal component. In 1909 Fisher sold his one-third partnership to Union Carbide for $5.6-million and launched his plan for a cross-country motor road he called the Lincoln Highway, connecting Times Square in New York City with San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. The Official Road Guide of the Lincoln Highway gave detailed instructions for navigating a continent where useful roads were either unfinished, or even unplanned, but it brought an independent population west.
Within half a century garages were included in every home plan and often had to accommodate two gas-powered cars. For the remainder of the century the automobile lexicon included something about translucent urban atmosphere rapidly becoming opaque. That and a 1973 oil embargo conspired to give us a more modest view of our energy requirements — and a more ardent look for alternatives — for both stability and mobility.
We lost Nikola Tesla and his fervent cerebral processor early in 1943. He had been granted 112 patents, along with a great number of honors, for his scientific achievements, many of which were beyond the practical capabilities of his contemporaries. But his inspiration continued to drive young minds toward the future.
In 1961 Robert Noyce discovered he could construct a miniature electronic system with particle pattern applied to a tiny silicon chip. In Japan, Akira Yoshino developed a lithium-ion rechargeable battery in 1986. Together they changed the dimensions of energy development and processing for the NEXT century.
Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning met in 1990 and cofounded NuvoMedia in 1997 after several years of practical experience in the art and science of their computer engineering degrees. The NuvoMedia “exit plan” resulted in a $187 million cushion while they developed a plan. They discovered AC Propulsion Incorporated and its “tzero” (“t0” a mathematical symbol to denote the beginning of time within a system) sports car that delivered 100% torque at start. Tesla Motors was incorporated in 2003. The Executive Summary for investors included: 0-60 in less than 3.9 seconds; World-class handling; 100 mpg equivalent; Zero tailpipe emissions; 300 mile range; Zero maintenance for 100,000 miles; and a selling price of less than half of the cheapest competitive sports car.
The first 30-minute presentation to Elon Musk (already deep into SpaceX) lasted two hours. He shared their vision and added: “Make a vastly superior car, not just a car that sucks less.” Musk led the $7.5 million investment round and became chairman of the board. A Lotus-built working mule was on the track in November of 2004 and JB Straubel the new chief technical officer (and brilliant achiever in his own right) was its driver. A quarter scale clay body-design model was seen in 2005 and the Tesla Roadster launch party at the Santa Monica Airport was a resounding success in July of 2006. There were more than 120 $100,000 full price buyers and the personality challenges began in earnest. In August of 2007 Eberhard resigned and Elon Musk, already in for $55 million, became CEO in October of 2008 while the “Whitestar” project was already underway. It was introduced as the Tesla Model S, a four-door sedan capable of 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, in April of 2009. Multiple versions followed with varying battery range and with or without four-wheel drive. We know it’s a success because we see them everywhere in our neighborhood.
Not unexpected was the delayed launch of Tesla’s brilliant Model X SUV. The reason is no less unexpected: more unique features, fully developed and logically functional. The introduction was delayed more than three years — to get everything right. During its September 2015 launch party in Fremont, Musk explained: “In retrospect, we would not have done so much in the way of features and functionality for the X. People are going to get an incredible car that does so many things no other car does, but it didn’t have to do quite as many things.
“Now that it’s done, I think anyone who buys it is going to love it.
So too, the new Model 3. It was predicted to be in full production (20,000/month) last December. Only 260 were delivered. Our Canoga Park dealer (Westfield Topanga) has yet to have a Model 3 in their inventory. At the price of a 3 Series BMW it will be the star of your neighborhood.
Elon Musk, in his effort to change the world as we know it, like his colleague from another century, has spoken often about the possibility of collecting solar energy in space and transmitting it to earth — sounding remarkably like Nikola Tesla. Where on earth to receive such a bolt of power and what would it effect as it passed through the atmosphere — and might it, if it got into the wrong hands …