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The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History Paperback – July 1, 2000


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The electric vehicle of historian David Kirsch's title is an old technology that seems ever on the verge of making a comeback. In the late 1890s, the electric engine competed with steam- and gasoline-driven engines to become the standard for automobile manufacturers, and it remained competitive for nearly a decade until, in the early 1900s, the internal-combustion engine captured the market.

It did so for complex reasons, few of them, in Kirsch's account, having to do with purely technological issues. Enter the "burden of history," a fruitful notion that reminds us that deterministic ideas of why things are the way they are--for example, that the lead-acid battery held insufficient power to carry cars over long distances without recharging, thus ensuring the victory of the more easily replenished internal-combustion engine--are often only half-right, if that. Kirsch urges that those concerned with analyzing the wherefores of the past take into consideration multiple causes, and not always the most apparent ones. The automobile, he continues, is not simply a machine, but "a material embodiment of the dynamic interaction of consumers and producers, private and public institutions, existing and potential capabilities, and prevailing ideas about gender, health, and the environment." In short, the automobile is a system unto itself, and how it came to take its present form--unchanged in many respects for a hundred years--is a story that involves many episodes.

Kirsch's account of some of those episodes provides a solid case study for students of technological history, and for those who press for new means of transportation in the new century. --Gregory McNamee

From Library Journal

Kirsch (industrial ecology, UCLA) considers the relationship of technology, society, and environment to choice, policy, and outcome in the history of American transportation. This book is the first on electric cars to examine clearly why the gasoline engine continues to be the dominant propulsion device for automobiles, even as technological and environmental concerns have made electric cars a viable alternative. The author!s main argument is that technological superiority cannot be determined without social context, for the choice of gasoline, ultimately, lies in the hearts and minds of engineers, consumers, and drivers. Though electric cars were an early alternative to steam and gasoline-powered vehicles, the technology was never developed after the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine became the standard. Kirsch connects the choice of internal combustion over electricity to current debates over the social and environmental impact of the automobile, the introduction of hybrid-powered vehicles, and the continuing evolution of the American transportation system. An excellent book for academic libraries supporting public policy programs and for public libraries."Eric C. Shoaf, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence, RI
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Rutgers University Press (July 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813528097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813528090
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.6 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #252,437 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Bromo on April 30, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Electric Vehicles giving way to the Internal Combustion Engine was not a given at the turn of the 20th century.

In the US, Electric Vehicles (EV) outsold the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) significantly in 1900, and by WW2 the ICE was dominant and the last passenger EV company closed up shop. What happened? Why? Was this a foregone conclusion given what we know today?

This book examines the transportation network as it existed, and how EV's fit into it, the first book section detailing the ill-fated electric taxi monopoly (didn't fail because of the ICE, but a combination of mismanagement and poor quality) and the second talking about the foray into passenger cars. A large part of the market failure of EV's had nothing to do with the limitations of the battery technology as most people think.

Interesting to note that the ICE required both cheap fuel, and a purpose built transportation network **both didn't exist** in the early days. Through uniting the portions of the economy that feed into the cars and those that were to create its infrastructure network they managed to create a system where the ICE was to dominate. Once cheap oil was discovered in Texas, Henry Ford created the assembly line for the Model T, the stage was set for the highway building boom started in the 1920's. At that point the EV's didn't stand a chance - they had blown it by failing to achieve the level of united purpose 20 years earlier with their suppliers, the utility companies and the rest of the public infrastructure. The advantages of the ICE's technology weren't nearly the factor that we gather, since the infrastructure required to make the ICE successful was so much larger than the EV's at the time - the EV industry simply "blew it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Ramanoir on December 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At the turn of the twentieth century, the prospect of a society centered on personal vehicules propulsed by internal combustion engines would have been unimaginable. It seems all the fairies were around the new miracle technology, electricity. The expectations ran very high in the general urban population. This book, through in deep research, brings clues to what really happened.
How the marvel energy was put aside by the one that we still have today, using concepts like pistons, crankshafts and generous heat, that are easier to understand. How the general population was drawn to the dream of touring, even though it was an exceptional use of the automobile.
How in the prospect of First World War the central governments gave generous subsidies for the development of the use of internal combustion engines for the truck industry.

A must read for anyone interested in the history of the electric car.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Emc2 VINE VOICE on October 26, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very well researched, this book is a must read for public officials, EV advocates and fans, and energy and transportation professionals.

There are plenty of lessons learned here, and now we are listening the same really old centennial arguments: range anxiety, lack of recharging infrastructure, and higher cost than internal combustion engines.

Among many surprising facts, you will also learn, believe it or not, that the automobile was the environmentally-friendly solution to the unsustainable problem being suffered by big cities such as New York and London.

PS: If you enjoyed this book, I highly recommend A History of Electric Cars, published in 2013. Not only covers the early days of electric cars but it goes all the way through the Prius and Nissan Leaf.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ilya B. on October 6, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It is an excellent overview of the history of Electric Vehicles (EV) I recommend anyone interested in the subject. The book suggests an idea how EVs could have become a standard transport and why they hadn't.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the original "Who Killed The Electric Car" story. It was killed about 1915 to 1920.
The story has unexpected twists and turns. It should be required reading for all students of the history of technology.
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