[Thomas Edison] has so far perfected his storage battery that it will live long enough to stand charges to carry a truck over fifty thousand miles. The perfected battery will pull twice the load of an ordinary truck, will have double the speed and only take up half the space. It will modify, to an extent hardly appreciated, the congestion of the down-town streets, for an electric truck equipped with the batteries will be half as long as today's unwieldy wagons. Being twice as fast, there will be only one eighth of the present congestion in the streets under the new system of speedy motor trucks.
From a fascinating article about Thomas Edison
in Success magazine, 1908, by Robert D. Heil.
The whole article is a delightful read!
This makes so many important points!
- The technology that Edison "perfected" is something that we're still trying to invent over a century later. Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl argue that much humbler batteries are close to physically impossible.
- A century ago, like today, everyone assumed that problems of geometry and economics could be solved by some sort of technology. Nobody wanted to think about induced demand, the obvious idea that demand for a valuable commodity is affected by its avaialbility. In a growing city especially, technologies that open up new space for traffic (via either road expansion or vehicle shrinkage) inevitably create more demand for that space, causing congestion to return to an unpleasantly high state sufficient to deter further travel by private vehicle. This is why all forms of modelling that imply a fixed demand for car travel in some future year (the "traffic is like water" idea) are preposterous.
- If you wonder why I rarely hyperventilate about game-changing technologies on this blog, and tend to be skeptical about technological solutions, one reason is that technology doesn't change the laws of geometry and physics, nor does it transform the mathematical concept of scarcity that underlies the law of supply and demand — perhaps the only idea in economics that deserves to be called a "law". No invention has ever changed these facts, and doing so is the closest thing to an impossibility that we can imagine.
- If you wonder why I am skeptical about transformative claims made for driverless taxis, well, one reason is that Edison is making the same claims about congestion reduction benefits, based on the same limited assessment of impact.
- More generally, if you've been fortunate to have some training in literature or history, you have read a lot of stuff that sounds like this. If you study the history of "this-technology-will-change-everything" rhetoric, all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, much of what we hear today from technology promoters sounds thoroughly familiar, just as Edison's claims here should sound familiar to those following the driverless car debate (on which I have an article in the works). You learn that most great ideas come to nothing, or have quite different impacts from those promised, often because of problems of physics, math, or basic economics that any rational, non-hyperventilating person could have thought about at the time.
Obviously, stuff gets invented that changes things, but when technology claims to fix a physics problem, such as seems to underlie the challenge of mobile batteries, or a problem of supply and demand, like the role of induced demand in congestion, be skeptical.
Hat tip: @enf, (Eric Fischer)