Trucking’s Eclipsed Electric Age

And now for a word from our sponsors (in 1916) …


IN THE EARLY YEARS of the “horseless age,” electric trucks vied with gasoline models to replace the ubiquitous horse and wagon on American streets. This advertisement, which continues below, appeared in The Traffic World in 1916.

“The superiority of the Electric for city work is already appreciated by the more experienced users of motor vehicles. In numbers the Electric is just beginning to make itself felt, but in proving certain economic laws it has already made history. You can call “white” “black” for a while but when it comes to a show-down somebody loses.

“Experienced motor truck users have ceased to buy motor trucks on price alone. You can buy a pleasure car by-product for half  what you pay for a good Electric, but it will last one-third as long and in most cases it will be out of commission so often that the necessary reserve equipment will eat up any possible saving. That’s not exaggerating — just talk to the older users.

“Honestly now, did you ever seriously set out to learn why an Electric truck is different from a gasoline truck for city work? Another question: How big a premium in operating costs are you willing to pay for your prejudice or indifference to efficient delivery in the city?

“Would you be interested in learning what G.V. users say about G.V. efficiency? Then write today for Bulletin 104.”

YOU MAY DETECT a note of desperation in the ad copy above. The General Vehicle Company, owned in part by General Electric since 1906, was facing stiff gasoline-powered competition by 1917. Improvements in engine design, including the invention of the electric starter, and Henry Ford’s mass production of comparatively cheap gasoline-powered vehicles eventually pulled the plug on the electric competition, though the industry’s battery charge lasted some time.

“New York is probably the greatest market for the electric road truck in the country,” Electrical World reported on Feb. 5, 1921, as the city prepared for an electric vehicle show. “More than five hundred enterprises are now using in the aggregate in the metropolitan district almost 5,000 electric trucks and delivery wagons, some of which have been in service 20 years and more. The largest installation is a fleet of 319 vehicles.”

It wasn’t the gasoline truck that killed GeVeCo, however, but the Great War. The company built Gnome aircraft engines at its Long Island City factory, but apparently couldn’t churn them out fast enough to support the war effort.

“The production of 5,000 large Gnome engines was entirely beyond the capacity of the General Vehicle Co.,” says the post-war U.S. Army Aircraft Production Facts published in 1919 (page 13). “Therefore negotiations were entered into with the General Motors Co. to take this contract.” The two companies agreed to combine resources, with General Vehicle “producing as many of the 110-horsepower Gnome engines as it could with its existing equipment.”

According to the U.S. Army publication, the GeVeCo plant in Long Island City was later leased by the Wright-Martin Aircraft Corporation from the U.S. government, which apparently nationalized the plant to speed production.

The end of the First World War, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, was also the end of GeVeCo, though some of its operations may have been assumed by the Walter Truck Company, which had produced gasoline-powered trucks since 1909. By 1921, Walter Truck had entered the electric truck market, producing trucks of 1-ton to 7-ton “heavy-duty sizes,” according to Electrical World.

After decades of neglect, electric vehicles — especially gasoline or diesel-electric hybrids — are enjoying something of a resurgence. Concern over carbon emissions, congestion and noise pollution is reopening markets to electrics, especially in New York, where companies such as Duane Reade and Frito-Lay are using battery-powered trucks built by Smith Electric Vehicles, and California, where UPS deployed 100 electric package vans earlier this year.

Plugging city-based fleets back into the power grid can lead to substantial fuel cost savings — as much as 80%, according to some operators — but electric trucks still cost much more than diesel-powered ones, and their owners often rely on government subsidies to purchase them. Electric trucks are also competing against surging interest in compressed and liquified natural gas vehicles fueled by an historic natural gas boom.

If their price becomes more competitive and fuel savings more apparent (and more quickly realized), electric trucks may yet make a comeback on city streets.

— wbc


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The Traffic World Washington Bureau

Of the 39,913,296 cars of revenue freight loaded in 1921, 32.8 per cent was miscellaneous freight, 27.7 per cent was merchandise, LCL, 20.4 per cent was coal, 6.3 per cent was forest products, 5.8 per cent was grain and grain products, 3.8 per cent was live stock, 2.3 per cent was ore and 0.8 per cent was coke, according to an analysis, accompanied by charts, made by the car service division of the American Railway Association.

Of the 45,864,309 cars loaded in 1920, 36.6 per cent was miscellaneous freight, 19.9 per cent was merchandise, LCL, 22.4 per cent was coal, 6.8 per cent was forest products, 4.1 per cent was grain and grain products, 3.5 per cent was live stock, 5.3 per cent was ore and 1.4 per cent was coke.

Of the 41,684,052 cars loaded in 1919, 57.8 per cent was merchandise, LCL, and miscellaneous (no separation of merchandise, LCL, and miscellaneous loading having been made), 21.4 per cent was coal and coke (no separation of coal and coke having been made), 7.1 per cent was forest products, 4.7 per cent was ore, 4.9 per cent was grain and grain products and 4.1 per cent was live stock.

Discussing the analysis, the division said: “The outstanding feature of the performance of the last year is a relatively extraordinary increase in the loading of merchandise and LCL, and miscellaneous commodities combined, and the marked decline in the raw materials entering into manufacture — coal, coke, ore and forest products. Simultaneously, in 1921, there was a heavy increase in grain and grain products loading and a smaller increase in the loading of live stock, but in the latter case, this was not sufficient to bring the figure up to the percentage of all loading in 1919.”

— Jan. 28, 1922, Vol. XXIX, No. 4

Note that in 1921 less-than-carload merchandise and miscellaneous loadings represented 60.5% of rail freight while bulk commodities such as coal, grains and forest products accounted for 39.5%. That LCL freight increasingly would become “less-than-truckload” freight as the trucking industry and national highway network expanded.

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Overnite’s J. Harwood Cochrane: Talking With a Trucking Pioneer

This June, I had the good fortune to interview J. Harwood Cochrane, the 100-year-old founder of famed trucking company Overnite Transportation, for The Journal of Commerce, along with Jack Holmes, the president of UPS Freight. Below are the first two episodes  in a JOC video series about Cochrane’s career, Overnite and trucking history, “Present at the Birth of Trucking.”

Cochrane was born in November 1912, shortly after Woodrow Wilson was elected president. In the same year, The Traffic World launched a column dedicated to “Increasing Efficiency on the Short Haul” through use of “the motor truck,” an invention the Chicago-based magazine predicted “will exert a profound influence upon our industrial progress.”

The motor truck did just that, and J. Harwood Cochrane grabbed the “guiding wheel” for a long and wild ride. He founded Overnite in Richmond, Va., in 1935 with two trucks. Overnite expanded across the country by acquiring more than 50 competitors. The company was sold in 1986 to railroad Union Pacific for the stellar sum of $1.2 billion. Cochrane then founded another company, Highway Express, which he sold in 2003 — at the age of 91.

These two videos look at the early days of trucking and how Cochrane founded Overnite. More episodes are on the way.

For more on the topic, see “Trucking through Time” on the website, where a full transcript of the Cochrane-Holmes is also available (for paying JOC members only, at the moment). My thanks again to Jack Holmes and J. Harwood Cochrane for their time, their interest and their insight.

— wbc

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September 24, 2013 · 10:17 pm

1897: Steam Overtakes Sail

When did the “Age of Sail” actually end? Not as long ago as you might think.

The SS Savannah, a hybrid rigged ship and paddle-wheeler, made the first Atlantic “steam-assisted” crossing in 1819, but sailing ships remained commercial work horses of the sea throughout the 19th Century, long after they were technologically obsolete.

By the 1890s, however, screw-powered steamships, propelled by technological advances such as the compound engine, finally began to overtake rigged vessels in numbers, as the chart below shows (click on the chart for a larger view).

steamvssail3At the start of the decade, there were still 21,190 rigged merchant ships weighing more than 100 tons in the global fleet, compared with 11,108 steamships, according to data from the 1898 Commercial Year Book, an annual business encyclopedia published by The Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin in New York. Over the next seven years, the number of large sail-powered merchant ships dropped 33.1% to 14,168, while the number of steamships rose 27.7% to 14,183, surpassing the rigged merchant fleet in size for the first time.

By 1900, the number of merchant sailing vessels had dropped to 12,524, while steam-powered merchant ships increased to 15,898, according to the 1901 Commercial Year Book (available in digital form from Google Books).

Finally, it was time to furl the sails.

— wbc


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The Ingenious Charles H. Barrows and his Electric Tricycle

Electric Tricycle

BIG WHEELS, move over. I bring you the C.H. Barrows Electric Tricycle, designed by Charles H. Barrows of Willimantic, Conn., and featured in 1895 editions of The Horseless Age (Vol. I, No. I, page 22) and Electrical Engineer (Vol. XX, No. 386, page 158). Born in 1841 in eastern Connecticut, Charles H. Barrows was the kind of inveterate inventor for which the 19th Century is justly famed. He was already busy working on motor-less vehicle designs in the 1870s, as this illustration from one of his many patents shows.

TricarriageIn this case, it’s a three-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. Like many inventors of the day, Barrows was fascinated by transportation, especially the possibilities and opportunities offered by railroads, trolleys and motorized vehicles. His inventions include an elevated trolley car rail system designed to reduce friction and drag, including the electric battery-powered railway car below.

Railwaycar“My car consists of a single truck which supports the motor and the traction wheels between the ends of the car body,” Barrow said in his patent. “The body is sustained upon the truck near its ends, and within said body are provided transverse compartments which are designed to receive the storage battery cells. The motor shaft is journaled about the middle of the truck frame, and on opposite sides of this motor shaft are disposed the two axles which lie parallel to the motor shaft and which are provided with the traction wheels. These traction wheels are geared directly to the motor shaft to be propelled directly therefrom.”

As the September 1894 Street Railway Journal (page 589) reports, Barrows’ elevated railway system and trolley cars were put to use in Baltimore County, Md., by the Randallstown,  Granite and Harrisonville Rapid Transit Company. Here’s one of Barrows’ electric trolley cars, complete with, in those civilized days, a smoking room (click on the picture to see a larger version of the image).

BarrowsElectricCar“The compartment for smokers is a feature that will be very popular with the public,” the Street Railway Journal reports. “The general contour of the car is pleasing to the eye. Its outlines are graceful and its furnishings of the latest improved styles.”

“Charles H. Barrows, a Connecticut man, stands ready to equip any sort of vehicle with a motor.” — San Francisco Call

Style is nice, but Barrows focused on the drive-train, developing novel ways of propelling his vehicles, whether railway cars or tricycles — really an early form of automobile. “Charles H. Barrows, a Connecticut man, stands ready to equip any sort of vehicle with a motor, using either electricity, gasoline or compressed air as the power,” reports the July 5, 1896 San Francisco Call. “His latest invention is a motorcycle built for two in which the power is applied to the front wheels instead of the rear wheels, as has been the custom heretofore.”

“The invention is a very simple one, with no loss of energy between the motive power and the driving wheels,” the newspaper reports. “Mr. Barrows says that with his method there is no loss of power through friction of intermediate machinery, and no excess of power is required to overcome the short-leverage strain common in the driving mechanism of other horseless vehicles.”

“My invention relates to improvements in motor-vehicles, and the object in view is to provide a simple, light, and substantial construction in which the parts are compactly arranged in a manner to apply power to the front wheel, which is also the steering-wheel, of the vehicle,” Barrows wrote in an 1895 patent application. “In the preferred embodiment of the present invention, the vehicle is a tricycle.”

And what a tricycle it was. The 300-pound vehicle could carry two people — or perhaps just President Grover Cleveland. The tricycle could travel a mile in three minutes, or 20 miles in an hour.  And remember, speed was the “desideratum” of the new “horseless age” of the 1890s, when most transportation actually was still horse-pace.

“One filling of the cells will run the vehicle from 100 to 150 miles.” — The Horseless Age

The Electrical Engineer describes the tricycle: “The forward wheel is the driver and is constructed with two rubber-tired rims, between which is what corresponds with the sprocket in the bicycle. The electric motor is carried in a box over the driver and is connected with the driver by a sprocket chain. The storage battery is placed between the two rear wheels. A seat capable of carrying from one to three persons is over the smaller rubber or pneumatic tire wheels. The guiding device is similar to that of the ordinary bicycle.”

Electric Tricycle2“The front wheel of the vehicle being the driving wheel and carrying within itself the total locomotive force, it is practically a mechanical horse and is attached to the carriage in the rear by a tube and spindle in the same manner as a bicycle,” The Horseless Age reports. And the drive wheel was removable, allowing for its use with different types of carriage bodies. “The ‘horse’ may be detached from one carriage and hitched to another in a minute, and is expected to work as well in a sleigh as in a carriage.”

Here’s another view of the tricycle from Barrows’ patent:

“The inventor calculates that one filling of the cells will run the vehicle from 100 to 150 miles according to the conditions of the road and load carried,” according to The Horseless Age. “The cells may be refilled wherever water fresh or salt can be procured to reduce the concentrated solution to the proper strength. Enough of the concentrated solution may be carried for a 500 mile run. The cost of refilling the cells is 50 cents.”

Barrows had high hopes for his tricycle built for two, which he claimed could be in use “24 hours per day every day in the year” for both “business and pleasure purposes.” He probably hoped to contract local manufacturers to build the tricycle in different markets, a plan not unlike that used by electric truck manufacturer Smith Electric Vehicles today.

Although I’d like to say Barrows profited from his inventions, I can’t confirm the tricycle traveled far from the drawing board. So far, I haven’t even been able to find Barrows’ obituary. Like many inventors of his day, Barrows seems to have led a middle class life, making a 19th Century living as a label cutter and manufacturer of small products, most notably mustache protectors for mugs and cups.


This “Yankee tinkerer,” as one source calls him, may never have become wealthy or famous, but he does exemplify the zeitgeist of his age. And he has not been entirely forgotten. A new magnet school focused on science, technology, engineering and math opened in Windham, Conn., last year, the Charles H. Barrows STEM Academy.

— wbc

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‘Too Long at the Wheel’: An Early Look at Truck Driver Hours, Fatigue

When the truck became a viable means of intercity freight transport in the U.S. post-World War I, truck drivers hit the road and didn’t look back.


Photo courtesy Library of Congress, no copyright restriction.

The fledgling trucking industry became notorious for drivers who would take whatever load they could get as far as they could, hopefully without falling asleep and running off the road, sleeping when and where they could.

By the 1930s, the push was on to limit on the amount of time truckers could spend behind the wheel, first at the state and then the federal level. The Motor Carrier Act of 1935 ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate truck driver hours of service, and the first federal rules were issued in 1938.

Truck driver fatigue and hours of service are still major issues today — the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees trucking and promulgates safety rules, began enforcing updated HOS regulations for truckers July 1, 2013 that cut into the hours they can spend behind the wheel.

This article was published in the Jan. 26, 1935 issue of The Traffic World.

Hour Limits For Truck Drivers

Under the title “Too Long at the Wheel,” the National Safety Council has issued a report dealing with fatigue among drivers of motor vehicles. The report is the result of studies made in each state, supplemented by personal investigations by two council engineers. It shows that 1 percent of all automobile accidents occur while the driver of the car is asleep or extremely fatigued, as compared with 3.2 percent attributable to intoxication or partial intoxication, 5.1 (percent) to defects in the vehicle or equipment and 0.7 of 1 percent “struck or struck by railroad train.”

In a summary of the report, the council points out that “violations of these rules (limiting hours of consecutive driving in most states) are most common and serious in long-haul for-hire trucking, particularly among drivers who own their own vehicles; although flagrant offenses occur in other types of trucking and are not uncommon in some kinds of bus operations.”

So far as regularly run common carrier truck fleets are concerned, the council says that many “have already adopted safety measures voluntarily, and the only effect enforced legislation on hours and duty will have on them is to reduce competition from, and chance of collision with trucks whose drivers are working dangerously long hours.”

Conclusions reached from the study are embodied in a series of “general recommendations.” The council recommends that the element of fatigue be given more importance in accident reports, that a scientific study be made to determine what effect continuous driving, long hours without sleep and mechanical aspects of vehicles have on fatigue and to ascertain the recuperative value of various rest periods, and that fleet operators and private owners voluntarily organize their businesses to avoid excessively long hours on duty for drivers.

All states, the council recommends, should limit the hours on duty of all except the drivers of private cars, that limitation to cover total working and waiting time, not merely time spent at the wheel. “There is need,” the report says, “for agreement among the states as to what constitutes time on duty and the conditions under which rest may be obtained.” After such laws have been made, the report said, a definite procedure for their enforcement should be laid down.

Finally, the report recommends that truck operators adopt a system of trip records so that these records may show the exact conditions under which their drivers are working.

** 30 **

Click here for a slideshow on the history of truck driver HOS rules I created for The Journal of Commerce.

— wbc

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‘Desideratum’ of the Horseless Age


From The Horseless Age, New York, December 1895

“AS A DESIDERATUM in modern locomotion, speed is of ever-growing importance. The pressure of the age demands it, and in response to that demand, steam cars and street cars now travel at rates of speed unkown a few years ago. Everywhere and in every line of effort, economy is the cry, and it is all for the easier attainment of human objects, and hence for the general amelioration of mankind.

“But when we come to consider the motor vehicle in its present state of development, the element of speeds sinks into relative unimportance. Other considerations, such as simplicity, economy of operation, ease of control, etc., are entitled to much greater weight. A motor vehicle may attain great speed, and yet be practically worthless for the ordinary purposes of everyday use.

“At some future day, when roads are universally good and motor vehicles are no longer a novelty; when people are accustomed to managing them and taking them into account as a factor of danger in street life, high rates of speed will be permissible, where road conditions are favorable; but for the present it is neither necessary nor desirable. Legal measures, limiting the speed of motor vehicles, are as much needed as measures regulating the speed of bicycles and horse-drawn conveyances, and for the same reason, namely, the public safety.”

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