The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History

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The electric vehicle of historian David Kirsch's title is an old technology that seems ever on the verge of making a comeback. In the late 1890s, the electric engine competed with steam- and gasoline-driven engines to become the standard for automobile manufacturers, and it remained competitive for nearly a decade until, in the early 1900s, the internal-combustion engine captured the market.

It did so for complex reasons, few of them, in Kirsch's account, having to do with purely technological issues. Enter the "burden of history," a fruitful notion that reminds us that deterministic ideas of why things are the way they are--for example, that the lead-acid battery held insufficient power to carry cars over long distances without recharging, thus ensuring the victory of the more easily replenished internal-combustion engine--are often only half-right, if that. Kirsch urges that those concerned with analyzing the wherefores of the past take into consideration multiple causes, and not always the most apparent ones. The automobile, he continues, is not simply a machine, but "a material embodiment of the dynamic interaction of consumers and producers, private and public institutions, existing and potential capabilities, and prevailing ideas about gender, health, and the environment." In short, the automobile is a system unto itself, and how it came to take its present form--unchanged in many respects for a hundred years--is a story that involves many episodes.

This book dates from 2000, or well before the current wave of electric vehicles. One wonders how this book would change if it were written today when electric vehicles finally seem to be enjoying a real resurgence.

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