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1910 Tom Swift Novel Talked About Electric Cars Like Many Of Us Do Today

The so-called “Tom Swift” youth novels first entered into publication in the US all the way back in 1910. The books generally present new technologies, and the inventors of these technologies, in very positive lights. While the stories are certainly not technical in any real sense of the word, the early ones did focus a lot on emerging technologies of the times.

Case in point, one of these early stories dealt extensively with electric vehicles and batteries.

Tom Swift electric carsOn that note, “James Anders” on the Tesla Motors Club forum recently posted some extensive excerpts from that story that seems worth reposting here, showing how similar many of the excerpts were to discussions you can now find on EV forums and elsewhere. Enjoy.

“Then how are you going to take part in the prize contest? Besides, electric cars, as far as I know, aren’t specially speedy.”

“I know it, and one reason why this club has arranged the contest is to improve the quality of electric automobiles. I’m going to build an electric runabout, dad.”

“An electric runabout? But it will have to be operated with a storage battery, Tom, and you haven’t”

“I guess you’re going to say I haven’t any storage battery, dad,” interrupted Mr. Swift’s son. “Well, I haven’t yet, but I’m going to have one. It occurred to me that I might put my battery into an auto, and win.”

“Hum,” remarked Mr. Swift musingly. “I don’t take much stock in electric autos, Tom. Gasolene seems to be the best, or perhaps steam, generated by gasolene. I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. All the electric runabouts I ever saw, while they were very nice cars, didn’t seem able to go so very fast, or very far.”

“That’s true, but it’s because they didn’t have the right kind of a battery. You know an electric locomotive can make pretty good speed, dad. Over a hundred miles an hour in tests.”

“Yes, but they don’t run by storage batteries. They have a third rail, and powerful motors,” and Mr. Swift looked quizzically at his son. He loved to argue with him, for he said it made Tom think, and often the two would thus thresh out some knotty point of an invention, to the interests of both.

“Of course, dad, there is a good deal of theory in what I’m thinking of,” the lad admitted. “But it does seem to me that if you put the right kind of a battery into an automobile, it could scoot along pretty lively. Look what speed a trolley car can make.”

“What is it, Tom?” and his father peered about the shop. “Why this motor has run an equivalent of two hundred miles on one charging of the battery! That’s much better than I expected.

“The truth is that Tom thinks he has invented a storage battery that will revolutionize matters. He’s going to build an electric automobile, he says.”

“I am,” declared the lad, as the others looked at him, “and it will be the speediest one you ever saw, too!”

“Where is your new battery, Tom?” “What solution do you use, Tom?” asked Mr. Swift. “I didn’t get that far in questioning you before the crash came,” he added.

“Well I have, in the experimental battery, a solution of potassium hydrate,” replied the lad, “but I think I’m going to change it, and add some lithium hydrate to it. I think that will make it stronger.

“They will be located under the middle of the car. There will be one set of batteries there, together with the motor, and another set of batteries will be placed under the removable seats in what I call the toneau, though, of course, it isn’t really that. A smaller set will also be placed forward, and there will be ample room for carrying tools and such things.”

“About how far do you expect your car will go with one charging of the battery?”

“Well, if I can make it do three hundred miles I’ll be satisfied, but I’m going to try for four hundred.”

“What will you do when your battery runs out?”

“Recharge it.”

“Suppose you’re not near a charging station?”

“Well, dad, of course those are some of the details I’ve got to work out. I’m planning a register gauge now, that will give warning about fifty miles before the battery is run down. That will leave me a margin to work on. And I’m going to have it fixed so I can take current from any trolley line, as well as from a regular charging station. My battery will be capable of being recharged very quickly, or, in case of need, I can take out the old cells and put in new ones.”

“That’s a very good idea. Well, I hope you succeed.”

“I want to get it the right shape to make the least resistance.” He began to make some sketches when he got home, and at dinner he showed them to his father and Mr. Sharp. He said he had gotten an idea from looking at the airship.

“And you still think you’ll beat all records?”

“I’m pretty sure of it, dad. You see the amperage will be exceptionally high, and my batteries will have a large amount of reserve, with little internal resistance. But do you know I’m so tired I can hardly think. It’s more of a job than I thought it would be.”

“I’m going to show you a little speed,” answered Tom.

The car was now moving rapidly, and there was a smoothness and lightness to its progress that was absent from a gasolene auto. There was no vibration from the motor. Faster and faster it ran, until it was moving at a speed scarcely less than that of Mr. Damon’s car, when it was doing its best.

“Some of the fuses blew out. I turned on too much current, and the fuses wouldn’t carry it. I put them in to save the motor from being burned out, but I didn’t use heavy enough ones. I see where my mistake was.”

He also put in a powerful electric search-light, which was run by current from the battery, and installed a new speedometer and an instrument to tell how much current he was using, and how much longer the battery would run without being exhausted. This was to enable him to know when to begin re-charging it. When the current was all consumed it was necessary to store more in the battery. This could be done by attaching wires from a dynamo, or, in an emergency by tapping an electric light wire in the street. But as the battery would enable the car to run many miles on one charging, Tom did not think he would ever have to resort to the emergency charging apparatus. He had a new system for this, one that enabled him to do the work in much less than the usual time.

Of course, it’s worth noting that electric cars were a big deal back in the early 1900s. Learn a lot more about that in this extensive history of electric cars.

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Written By

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.


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