How Electric and Gas-Powered Cars Battled in America's First Automobile Race

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"The first automobile race ever held in this country took place in Chicago on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1895. What a day! What a race! What a time!"

energy_bug_1.pngSo begins Pedro Salom Jr.'s 1949 account of the competition between early automobiles. The first car race in America wasn't just a battle between individuals, but technologies too. Two teams had picked electricity as a motive source, four had chosen gasoline. So the racers were playing for their tech in addition to themselves.

The race itself was a mess. Nearly all of 100 participants who initially signed up had to pull out of the race due to mechanical difficulties and the heavy snow that blanketed Chicago a couple days before the competition. Only six cars made it to the starting line and only two finished. All of the cars had trouble. Frank Duryea, whose gasoline-powered car was the fastest, had such trouble with his igniter that he stopped at a tinsmith's shop and forged a new one! And, as Salom Jr relates, "All of the contestants had been about equally delayed by frightened horses, small boys throwing snowballs, and the need for getting out and laboriously pushing their vehicles through snow."

Salom Jr was not an idle observer of these events. His father had entered the Electrobat 2, an early electric vehicle, into the race. Though it went only 36 miles (by Salom's telling) and did not complete the race, it was awarded the highest prize, the gold medal, for being the "most practical from the standpoints of general utility, ease of control and adaptability to the various forms of work required of an automobile." I recounted the broader story of the Electrobat, and how it became the centerpiece of an audacious scheme to build an all-electric transportation system, in an excerpt from my book, Powering the Dream.

Salom's slim volume, scanned and reproduced below, is remarkably rare. It was self-published by the family, and I've never even seen reference to it in other works on the early automobile.

I got my hands on it through sheer luck and the goodwill of the Salom family. I posted a comment on some website (I'm not even sure which one) about the Electrobat and Salom -- and Mary Salom Lugones, Pedro Jr's great-granddaughter, sent me an email. Lugones had become interested in her great-great grandfather's electric vehicle work. She, in turn, connected me with her father, who sent me this wonderful 31-page book.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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