Tar Wheels…Gasoline out…electrics in

by Bob Blake

Battery powered transportation is the rage. Almost every automobile ad features electric vehicles as our future. Manufacturers compete to squeeze that last ounce of power from an electric motor and excitedly describe the distance it will go on a single charge. With all the hoopla, it would be easy to assume the electric car is a startling new concept…but it’s not! William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa built a rudimentary battery-operated vehicle in 1890 that carried six passengers at 14 mph for short distances. The streets of New York City had a fleet of battery-powered taxis in the early 1900s. Several manufacturers offered quiet electric cars to the public as an option over the belching and cantankerous gasoline motor. 

The success of any automobile is judged by its efficiency and ability to safely move man and goods. The lowly battery remains the continual weak link. They are always judged by their lifespan, mileage on a single charge and the time required for a recharge. Electric vehicles offer clean power, but some hurdles remain.  

At one time, automakers even considered a nuclear-powered engine! America was enthralled by nuclear power during the 1950s. It was a time before disasters such as Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, Japan. Power companies bragged that their electricity would become “too cheap to meter.” Our government even loaned the public Geiger counters to scout the hills for “hot rocks.” The scientists who produced “the bomb” switched to splitting atoms for peaceful purposes. Once there even existed the NEPA agency, which proposed use of Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft!

Ford Motor Company joined the excitement and, in 1958, designed an experimental atomically powered vehicle called the Nucleon.  It resembled a sleek cab-forward pickup truck and contained a small rear mounted nuclear reactor. Atomic fission heated water in a closed system that produced steam for movement. The radioactive core and the propulsion mechanism were suspended on cables in the rear and could be easily exchanged for a new one after 5,000 miles. How’s that for distance between fill-ups! 

The passenger-forward design gave the occupants added protection. This concept vehicle, however, never made it off the drawing boards… but the design remains a landmark of our 1950’s Atomic Age. 

Shortly, scientists soberly learned of the hazards of nuclear waste, radiation poisoning, and “meltdown.” Quickly, America developed an aversion to anything tagged “nuclear.” A full-scale working model was never built but a small Nucleon prototype (sans the reactor) sits quietly in the Henry Ford Museum.

Likely, some form of electric power – battery or fuel cell – will move us from place in the near future! 


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