Woods Dual Power: The World’s First Hybrid

The Toyota Prius has become the defining hybrid vehicle of today’s automobile market. Entering the market in 2003, the Prius spurred a revolution in alternative fuel technology. Continuing in that trajectory, contemporary automobile manufacturers are now producing even more hybrid and all-electric models to the public.

Hybrid technology, however, is not just a product of the 21st century. Hybrid and electric models have existed as long as gasoline-powered engine models. When first manufactured, automobiles were available with various power source options including gas, electric, and in 1915, a hybrid of the two. The Woods Dual Power claims to be one of the world’s first hybrid petrol-electric automobiles.

Page from the Woods Dual Power Catalog. Click to view the complete item in the Hagley Digital Archives.

The Woods Dual Power was at the forefront of hybrid technology that utilized two power sources: gasoline and electricity. Patent number 1303870 was issued to Roland S. Fend for this technology in May 1919, nearly four years after the initial application in June 1915. The Dual Power used only electrical power up to 15 mph and then switched to using its gas-powered engine when driven up to a maximum speed of 35 mph.

For more information on early electric vehicles, see a work by Clinton E. Woods, titled The Electric Automobile: Its Construction, Care and Operation published in 1900. In it, he provides the rather short history on the electric automobile, its operation, and how it compares to similar gasoline models available at the time. This title is available for use at Hagley Library.

So why did hybrid technology fail at first? For the Woods Dual Power it was a matter of comparable performance and maintenance standards. With a maximum speed of only 35 mph, the Dual Power was slower than most contemporary gasoline-powered engine models. Additionally, the dual technology of both an electric and gas engine required more maintenance than other models. Woods did release an updated version of the Dual Power in 1917, but the company met failure by 1919.

Approximately 80 years later, Toyota was able to perfect electric-gasoline hybrid technology with the Prius. Other companies such as Chevrolet and Honda currently produce hybrid models. What is curious to note is that both electric and hybrid technologies have existed since the first invention of automobiles. Why did gasoline-only models take over? What are your opinions?

Note: The collection does contain Prius materials, but copyright law prevents their digitization at this time.

C.E. Woods, The Electric Automobile: Its Construction, Care and Operation. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Company, 1900.

Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of The Automobile (2 Volume Set) Volume 1: A-L; Volume 2: M-Z. Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000.

Robin Valencia is the Graduate Assistant for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

Revisit our When Cars Fly! article from a few weeks ago, to see an update about the flying cars coming to this week’s 2012 New York Auto Show!

Revised April 17, 2012. Thanks to Jim Dalmas for your help in refining this post.

One thought on “Woods Dual Power: The World’s First Hybrid

  1. You need much more discussion of hybrid approaches before the comparison makes sense; in any case, the Woods approach and a Prius are very different things.

    A much better (and timely, perhaps!) comparison would be to the current generation of grid-recharge vehicles — BEVs with auxiliary generator “recharge” and range extension.

    I think I might also have mentioned a couple of the other early approaches that used battery hybrid — and why — such as the ‘tripower’ locomotives in the New York area in the ’20s. A VERY large number of interesting vehicles have used motors driving generators for propulsion, with battery acting as more than just a ‘smoothing buffer’ for peak power requirement — transit buses, most notably. A whole industry started up around using battery-electric locomotives with only very small genset recharge… until it turned out that switching didn’t involve slow and infrequent plodding hither and yon (but that’s another story, interesting though it is…)

    Here is the thing: the early Japanese forms of hybrid redefined the old terminology of ‘parallel hybrid’ (which meant the Woods approach: pure electric transmission, with the IC motor or whatever never physically connected to a transmission) to mean something different: the electric motor and the IC motor ‘connected’ in parallel, so either one could contribute torque. (A ‘series hybrid’ puts the motor on the engine crankshaft for supplemental torque).

    While a Prius is technically able to act as a pure BEV, anyone actually driving one quickly recognizes that it has pathetically low performance and very limited effective range before the motor has to kick in and do most of the business. On the other hand, as a means of boosting flexibility and implementing energy recovery from braking, the Japanese-parallel approach shines nicely… at minimum overall weight. The Woods approach requires a full traction generator and all the regulation for it, cables rated at full amperage, and a reasonably intricate control and charging system in order to provide meaningful IC-engine power; the motor also has to be purpose-built to work effectively on battery power (in those days before DC-DC conversion made it practical to run on it for a long percentage of available charge) but also make good power and dissipate heat losses when running on engine power. As you might imagine, it was cheaper and simpler to spend the money and weight on a few mechanical cogs and a clutch that could be easily slipped and relined when the time came…

    Now, it might be interesting to see how the ‘energy saving’ designs came back into favor toward the end of the 1920s, when everyone knew the cheap oil was running out (to the extent that one of the ‘baby Standard oils’ paid an enormous sum to I.G. Farben for some Fischer-Tropsch rights to synthesize liquid fuel from coal… before the West Texas fields came in, and I believe before catalytic cracking was commercialized. Seems a great many people have forgotten that part of American history…


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