The letter to the editors was written in 1896 and published immediately by the trade magazine Horseless Age. In it, the brilliant inventor detailed how his prototype for an electric car was progressing.
I’m talking, of course, about Henry E. Dey.
What’s that? You haven’t heard of him? I hadn’t either. Perhaps, like me, you were thinking of some other car luminary like Henry Ford, but Ford’s fame came after years of tinkering by countless innovators like Henry Dey. Even Ford himself had two failed auto companies before he founded Ford Motor.
The idea of the “horseless carriage” or “fiery chariot” (as the idea was sometimes called) had enthralled inventors for centuries. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched plans for a self-propelled road vehicle in 1478. Dey was working on an electric vehicle, and in his letter he details his progress:
To the editor of Horseless Age:
In reply to your inquiry, as well as many of your readers, as to how I am progressing with my electric carriage and its hydraulic gearing, I will try to give you an idea how far advanced we are. I enclose some photographs, one of the 2.5 hp electric motor, which weighs 65 pounds. The outside case, spider and brush holder are made of aluminum. It is completed with the exception of the commutator connections. Another picture shows the rear axle, which is made of three pieces of tubing forming a triangle. At the ends will be noticed the fluid motors connected to the wheel hubs. The latter have not yet been spoked.
My favorite part of the long letter is at the end. When you consider that the letter was written thirty years before even half of American homes had electricity, how might such a car be charged as it travels any distance? Dey offers this plan:
When going on long journeys I will probably carry a jointed fish pole with a spring clip at the end. In case of running short I can spring this on a trolley wire and recharge in a very short time. Of course, I would reimburse the Trolley Company. I would use a water rheostat to cut down the voltage.
Very Truly Yours,
Henry E. Dey
What I love about this letter – apart from the visual of Henry casting a line to hook onto local trolley power – is that he wasn’t finished with his project. He was freely showing his work, and likely received a number of helpful suggestions from the readers.
From the perspective of our current world, with its emphasis on protecting and monetizing intellectual property, there’s something quaint about Henry’s transparency.
I couldn’t help but think of Henry’s letter when I saw a video released by German engineers of what they say is the first-ever completely autonomous airplane landing (I highly recommend watching it). “Completely autonomous” means that in addition to no human intervention at the controls, there was no technology on the ground to help guide the plane – something that is commonly used by pilots as they approach airports.
The video wasn’t quite the same as Henry’s letter in that the researchers were showing their progress when they had something to show – unlike Henry writing about his ideas (one imagines the car parts strewn across the garage floor as he was writing his letter). But the video does show a step in what clearly is a longer journey toward a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). Like Henry, these researchers are focused on a prototype. Commercialization is a completely different task, as evidenced by the length of time it’s taken for electric horseless carriages to make it on the streets (I was picked up in one at an airport just yesterday).
We live in an era of amazing change. Keep your eyes open for others who are showing their work and sharing their journey.
P.S. I ran across the Henry Dey letter courtesy of my Dad, who receives a regular mailing from Letterjoy, a service that sends replications of historical letters to subscribers in the mail, along with interesting background information about the letter writer and subject.