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While in and around Albany last week to visit the Ford hydroelectric plant on Green Island, I took the opportunity to head over to Schenectady to investigate something I had read on Make just a few days prior: an electric car that was once owned by Charles Steinmetz.
As presented by Make, a couple of the facts were incorrect. This was quite obviously not an electric car from 1889, nor was it an electric car built by Thomas Edison. Rather, it was a 1914 Detroit Electric, and on the surface a rather unremarkable one at that, as 96-year-old electric cars go. But from the post I was able to ascertain that the electric was housed at the Edison Tech Center in Schenectady, a sort of museum and workshop designed to celebrate the engineering heritage of New York’s Capital District. This is the area, after all, that gave birth to General Electric, that witnessed the first demonstration of the electromagnet, and where you can find the oldest continually operating hydroelectric plant (in Mechanicville, several miles upriver from Ford’s plant, generating electricity since 1898).
While Edison and Tesla take credit for many of the advances in understanding and applying electricity around the turn of the century, Steinmetz seems to be the real hero to many electrical engineers. Unlike Edison, Steinmetz formulated a more scientific and less scattershot approach to problem solving, and unlike Tesla, Steinmetz never became a nucleus for free energy crackpot ideas. Born a hunchback, Steinmetz couldn’t easily drive a car, but he did enjoy being driven in one, so he purchased the 1914 Detroit Electric, a Model 48 Duplex Drive Brougham. It wasn’t an unusual choice for Steinmetz, a scientist in the employ of General Electric and a member of Union College’s electrical engineering faculty for a couple decades. Edison himself owned one, as did Henry Ford.
The Model 48 didn’t lead an easy life. Sometime after Steinmetz was finished with it – presumably by the time he decided to build his own electric car in 1922 – it ended up discarded in a field in Glenville, New York, where it would have rotted entirely to the ground had not Union College in Schenectady bought it in 1971 and taken on a full restoration of the car. The one change to the car the Union College professors and students made was to change out the original Edison batteries for modern deep-cycle batteries, though they held on to a few of the Edison batteries, which are now on display alongside the Detroit Electric at the Edison Tech Center.
By the way, the electric is licensed and registered and emerges from the museum once a year as part of the Union College commencement ceremonies.