An Electric Runabout? In 2019?

Although not clear from the book cover, Tom’s electric runabout was painted glossy purple to distinguish it from the other race car entries.

The initial blog, “Ira Beckerman and the Electric Runabout” and the heading for future posts, “The Electric Runabout” uses words that seem positively archaic, especially when talking about cutting 21st century age technology.  Why that choice?

 In 1910, a publisher Edward Stratemeyer, began a series of children’s books featuring Tom Swift, an inventive and science-minded teenager.  In quick order, Tom creates a motor cycle, a motor boat, an airship, and a submarine boat before coming to his project for the 5th story, an electric car.  This vehicle featured a powerful new rechargeable battery that could go 100 miles per hour and had a 400 mile range. One hundred and ten years later, we are still striving for a car as good as Tom Swift’s.  Elon Musk, are you listening?

Key to Tom’s electric runabout was the use of a solution of potassium hydrate and a lithium hydrate boost to run an oxide of nickel with steel and oxide of iron negative electrodes.  The nickel-iron battery had been perfected by Edison in 1901.  Keep in mind that most electric cars of the time ran on lead acid batteries.  Lithium might have been a lucky guess for Tom, but it is the key to modern rechargeable batteries.  Tom’s new battery would take half the recharge time of other batteries.  The race that he entered was 500 miles around a track in Long island. Twenty cars were entered, including other electric cars, steam and gasoline powered.  In 1910, electric cars were at their zenith and it was not clear that gasoline powered vehicles would prevail.  Introduction of the electric starter in 1912 pretty much sealed the advantage of gasoline powered cars, along with the inherent problems of electric cars of the time, being range, recharge times of the lead acid batteries, and the initial higher cost of manufacturing.

A 1909 roadster at the Vanderbilt race. No windshield, two seats, relatively light.

The runabout that Tom Swift built was a common vehicle of the time, a light basic style with no windshield, top or doors and a single row of seats.  They were designed for light use over short distances, distinguishing them from the tonneau, touring, phaeton, coupe, and sedan.  Over time, the runabout was replaced by the roadster.  We don’t use the term runabout much anymore, but it is still used in Britain to refer to the same kind of small car used over short journeys.

Tom Swift was inspired by inventors such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Glenn Curtiss, and Alberto Santos-Dumont.  He inspired more recent inventors such as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Wozniak, and Ray Kurzweil.  Given that the current crop of electric cars are best used for light use over short distances, perhaps runabout would be a fair descriptor.  So thank you, Tom Swift.

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