Dave Roberts interviews Alexis Madrigal about his new book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. Alexis reflects on a failed turn-of-the-century electric car company:
To succeed, the electric cars of those days would have had to succeed as part of a greater all-electric transportation system. In fact it was attempted by the Electric Vehicle Company, which was run by a bunch of robber baron types, and failed. Not because the cars didn't work; not because they couldn't get you across Manhattan in an electric cab in 1900. The technology was the part that worked. The business is what failed. Unfortunately, that was a pretty high-profile failure. Like in the internet space, when something really high-profile fails, people say, oh, that'll never work. Until it does.
His bigger point:
There is this concept in technology history of technological momentum: once you get going down a path, once money starts flowing, all sorts of new innovations come about and all sorts of new businesses are built. The American innovation machine gets cranking down particular pathways.
It makes it really difficult to see: What kind of advances would we have seen around electric vehicles if that company had succeeded wildly? Which technologies win seems more inevitable in retrospect than it does to anyone at the time. That's a consistent lesson through all of the research I've done. Everyone has been convinced that their technology was going to win.
(Photo: "Detroit Electric car charging")
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