The fathers of the hybrid car
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The fathers of the hybrid car

Its prototype was invented in a Teaneck garage

In the early 1930s, Victor Wouk was a student at the elite Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan and belonged to the school’s science club. Almost as a lark, he invited one of the country’s most famous scientists, Robert H. Goddard, to visit his school’s science club.

In 1926, Goddard had launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket; during his lifetime, he obtained 214 patents and launched 34 rockets, the highest reaching over a mile and a half. The Goddard Space Flight Center, an arm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in Maryland, is named after him. He is considered the “father of modern rocketry.”

Goddard came to the school, gave a talk, and stayed for dinner.

Victor, curious, asked Goddard: Why did you accept an invitation to speak to a lowly high school group?

Said Goddard: “You asked me.”

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Victor Wouk Courtesy Jordan Wouk

Wouk (1919-2005) himself accomplished a great deal in his life, and no doubt one reason was his willingness to attempt the impossible – like inviting a world-renowned scientist to visit his high school. (In the lexicon of youth, said novelist Lord Bulwer-Lytton, there is no such word as “fail.”) Today Wouk himself is celebrated as the “father of the hybrid car” – a car that runs on both electrical batteries and gasoline. (See the book, “Victor Wouk: The Father of the Hybrid Car,” by Sean Callery, in the juvenile section of several local libraries. Others honored in the Crabtree Publishing Company’s environmental-book series: Rachel Carson, Albert Gore, John Muir.)

The Prius, introduced in the United States in 2001, uses some key innovations made by Wouk and his collaborator, Charles Rosen, and in his 80s, Wouk actually got one (a white one) and proudly drove it around.

Where, you ask, was the Wouk-Rosen prototype invented?

In a garage, of course.

A garage in Teaneck.

A town where Rosen still lives. And whose garage it was and is. (See related story.)

Wouk, besides having a lofty IQ, was blessed with a special gift for solving devilishly difficult problems.

Yet his life was by no means a series of sparkling triumphs. Just as the U.S. military took its sweet old time recognizing the military possibilities of Goddard’s rockets, despite Goddard’s entreaties, the United States never recognized the value of Wouk’s prototype hybrid car – which it could have begun developing as far back as 1974. It was 25 years before another country, Japan, introduced a commercial hybrid car. The U.S. delay was a historic, monumental blunder. It cost not just money but – because this country missed out on the potential reduction of airborne pollutants – it also cost lives.

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Victor Wouk’s older brother is Herman Wouk, the novelist (“The Caine Mutiny”). One of his sons is Jordan, who lived in Teaneck for 28 years, served on the planning board and the parks advisory board, and remains chairman of the Hackensack River Green Way advisory board. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jordan Wouk is a retired computer systems manager.

No, his father didn’t make a fortune with his prototype of a hybrid car, or from his other inventions, Jordan Wouk reports. “He was delighted just to see his key ideas realized. It was a pleasure for him. It made him very happy to show you what he had done.”

Of course, Jordan points out, his father didn’t invent the hybrid: Even in the 19th century, scientists were experimenting with electric cars and electric-gasoline hybrids. Still, he points out, the Prius reflects his father’s ideas.

Victor Wouk was something of a Renaissance man, a polymath. He loved classical music, especially opera, and owned the full score of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” At dinners in their Manhattan apartment, he would have his family listen to recordings of string quartets. “He read mostly technology stuff,” says his son. “Still, he had an incredible memory for poetry and songs, and could (and would) quote at length from Shakespeare. He knew a good part of the canon.”

Victor seemed to have boundless energy – forever giving talks, writing letters to the editor, traveling around the world. He even had time to start a club to work for cleaner air.

In the 1980s he and his wife developed Lyme disease, presumably from ticks at their vacation home in Millwood in Westchester County. (She was hospitalized for two weeks.) He investigated the subject – and in 1987 gave a talk on the disease.

As a father he was very busy, says his son. “But we built a radio together, and he taught me how to solder. We did it step by step, and even got it working. Twenty years later, it was still working.” Characteristically, Victor wrote to the manufacturers informing them of mistakes in the instruction guide.

Jordan goes on: “He was not especially religious, not like his brother Herman, but we attended Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan.” (Herman Wouk has written widely about Judaism and religion in general, notably in “This Is My God” and the recent book “The Language God Talks.”) Victor was active in New York’s Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, his son notes.

Jordan Wouk moved from Teaneck back to New York City late last year, so his wife, a song-writer, could be closer to her work. He continues to visit Teaneck several times a month. His older brother, Jonathan, is a retired pastoral counselor living in Ottawa.

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Victor’s parents, Abraham Isaac Wouk and Esther Levine Wouk, came from Minsk in 1906. They married in 1911. Esther was the daughter of a rabbi, Abraham, the son of the shammes in the same synagoge.

Abraham started out working in a laundry – “real men” considered that an effeminate job, so there were always openings for men who wanted to work. In 1925, he opened a large wet-wash laundry in the Bronx, called Fox Square, and it did a thriving business.

Victor was born April 17, 1919, in New York City. Herman was four years older, and sister Irene was eight years older.

(Irene married Howard Green, an orthopedic surgeon, and they had three sons, all of whom became doctors and leaders in their specialties. She was the basis for much of the character of Marjorie in Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar.” Victor himself appears in Herman’s “Winds of War.”)

Herman Wouk told Time magazine in 1955, “Mama was treated rather like a princess around the house.” On Friday afternoons, “[s]he scrubbed the kitchen … until the place shone. The candles were lit, and we sang the joyful Sabbath hymns and drank the sacramental wine; the children, too. My father usually talked about the Bible.”

Herman encouraged his younger brother to “read, read, read anything.”

Following in Herman’s footsteps, in 1935 Victor went to Columbia College. He studied electrical engineering.

On May 17, 1939, he helped produce the first live telecast of any sports event – a baseball game between Columbia and Princeton at Baker Field, Columbia’s athletic field, where Lou Gehrig, a Columbia College graduate, used to hit towering home runs.

An antenna atop Columbia’s Philosophy Hall had to be maneuvered so a signal could be directed toward the Empire State Building downtown. Someone had to climb the 45-degree roof to get to the antenna, where the chimney was. Victor was given “this dubious honor,” as he put it, and he kept turning the antenna until a confederate on the ground with a view of the screen called up to say that the picture was clear. At the time, there were only 400 television sets in the entire United States.

His father wanted Victor to come into the prosperous laundry business, but partly to get away from any pressure, Victor decided to go to the California Institute of Technology for graduate work. This was the fall of 1939. He drove across the country in a Model A Ford, a gift from his father.

Around that time, the American Petroleum Institute wanted to find out whether static electricity created dangerous sparks at gas pumps – as scary rumors had it. Victor was offered $1,000 toward his doctorate to investigate the question. His conclusion: A carelessly tossed cigarette was far more likely to create a fire. His doctoral dissertation was on static electricity.

On June 15, 1941, Victor married Joy Lattman, who had been a year behind him at Columbia’s sister college, Barnard. As a wedding gift he received a 1937 Chevrolet, and the two cruised cross-country on their honeymoon.

In 1930s and ’40s, many gas trucks had chains dragging behind them, supposedly to release any static electricity into the road. On his honeymoon, Victor checked how much static electricity was released by those chains. Answer: zilch.

Shortly after leaving Caltech, Wouk began working on the famous Manhattan Project whose goal was to build a nuclear weapon. Twice he was called up for military service, but the government decided each time that it was more important that he continue working where he was.

After the war, Victor started his own businesses, manufacturing some novel electrical device or other, selling it to another company, and moving on.

Jonathan was born in May 1944, and Jordan in October of 1948.

The year 1962 was a fateful year in Victor’s life. That was the year he was approached by an engineer named Russell Feldman, the founder of Motorola. Feldman was worried about air pollution and interested in finding out whether a car powered entirely by electricity was possible.

Victor studied the question – and his conclusion was that a battery-operated car couldn’t go very far and couldn’t go very fast. The batteries couldn’t store enough energy. Nor were the first few models popular. Said he: “They didn’t sell like hotcakes; they sold like coldcakes.”

Later on, “I was actually accused of being anti-electric car!” he complained. “I’d say, ‘It’s not that I don’t want electric cars, I want cars that will work.'”

In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, requiring auto manufacturers to reduce damaging emissions by 90 percent. Deadline: 1976. The Environmental Protection Agency was to enforce the law.

The EPA then launched the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, to encourage the development of cleaner cars. It offered money to whoever came up with a promising prototype.

Now, in 1962, Victor had begun working for Gulton Industries in Metuchen, which made electrical devices. (It’s no longer in business.) Gulton had purchased the Electronic Energy Conservation Corporation -a company that Victor had started.

Another employee at Gulden was a fellow with a doctorate in chemistry, a fellow also intensely interested in hybrid cars. Charles Rosen. It was like Mr. Sears meeting Mr. Roebuck. He and Victor decided to work together to come up with a hybrid that would win the EPA’s approval.

They needed stake money, and amassed $300,000 – some of it contributed by Herman.

But the EPA wouldn’t help out financially until someone actually produced a practical model. Said Victor, a bit disgruntled, we “were asking for the privilege of building this vehicle at our own expense and having it tested at our own expense to prove that it would beat the 1976 requirements on emissions.”

Still, whoever came up with a practical prototype would get some pleasant rewards. The EPA would buy 10 prototypes for $30,000 and test them out for a year. If the prototypes passed the tests, the government would buy another 350 of them, paying twice the going rate for cars.

Their new company was named by Herman: Petro-Electric Motors, Ltd. Explained Herman: “The ‘Ltd.’ [Limited] made it sound very fancy.”

Victor and Rosen spent a year putting together a proposal.

They sought out a car with lots of space under the hood, to accommodate batteries. They settled on a Buick Skylark. Alas, Buick Skylarks were no longer being produced. General Motors extended its production for another week, just so a model would be available. GM sold it to the scientists for $2,700.

The Skylark had a V8 engine; they replaced it with a small Wankel, which they obtained from Mazda. The charge? Free. “I was absolutely flabbergasted,” Victor said.

Building the car was murder. It was “a long uphill struggle,” confessed Victor, “because I’m not an automotive engineer nor is Dr. Rosen.” They used such sophisticated strategies as “regenerative braking,” where the energy used to stop the car was transferred to the batteries. At one point, they got the car to go 85 miles an hour – but the noise it made was so hellish that it drove them crazy.

They finally came up with a working hybrid. Said Victor, “Damned if it didn’t work. It worked.” They submitted their data to the EPA.

Three months later, they received an answer: Go ahead. Also accepted into the competition were an electric car and a diesel car.

Then, out of the blue, the EPA made a stunning announcement. It was ending the program.

With Herman’s help, Victor approached the National Science Foundation, and its officials persuaded EPA officials to attend a meeting where Victor presented his results.

He then first met Erik Stork, head of EPA’s mobile source air pollution control program.

A test was arranged. At the testing center, in Ann Arbor, Mich., EPA’s engineers told Victor that the car would never pass – no matter how well it did. One engineer told him, “Erik Stork had come in and said, ‘Under no circumstances is the hybrid to be accepted.'”

The EPA’s official report listed 75 faults that the Wouk-Rosen prototype presumably had – faults that Wouk called “irrelevant, exaggerated, or wrong.” They were Mickey Mousing him, he said. He answered every one of the 75 objections. To no avail. Even though the EPA had found that this hybrid emitted only 9 percent of the pollutants emitted by a typical car, the EPA slammed the door.

Two years later, Wouk had run out of money. “By 1976 I was so disgusted,” he said, “I lost so much energy, that I gave up.”

In the years to come, he still did his best to promote hybrids.

As he put it, he “made a pain in the ass of myself for 20 years.”

The magazine hybridCAR writes, “From 1974-2000 Wouk published more than 100 technical papers, gave regular lectures, and wrote numerous letters to the editor. He championed the benefits and feasibility of mass commercialization of hybrid cars, especially plug-in hybrids, and criticized Detroit’s foolish pursuit of magic solutions for reducing emissions and increasing fuel efficiency. By contrast, he saw hybrids as real, practical, effective, and immediately available.”

The trouble was, gasoline in the U.S. was still relatively cheap. Drivers and manufacturers therefore weren’t that eager to reduce the consumption of gasoline – whereas gasoline in Japan was expensive.

In 2006, the 78-year-old Stork, retired from the EPA. was quoted by hybridCAR magazine as saying, “It wasn’t worth my time. It was just a nuisance. I was busy regulating the auto industry. I didn’t have time for that Christmas tree ornament.”

“On the dynamometer, it was rigged to run only on the batteries.” (That’s not true, according to Rosen.) “That’s why the emissions were so good,” Stork said. “It’s just not a very practical technology for automotive. That’s why it’s going nowhere. It certainly wasn’t [going anywhere] then. Even today, it’s marginal.”

No, it isn’t.

Stork apparently never harbored any doubts about his decision. He seems to have had such an exalted opinion of himself that he didn’t think it was possible for him to make a mistake – especially a mistake so harmful in so many ways.

Not long before Victor died, he told an interviewer that he felt that if he had gotten the EPA’s go-ahead, he could have produced a car like the Prius many years earlier – acknowledging that the Prius introduced some valuable innovations, like a continuously variable transmission and smooth transition from electricity to gas.

Interviewed by someone from Caltech, he referred to Erik Stork as “the bad guy” – X – without naming him.

Stork had written to him, Wouk said, that if he was proved wrong in turning down the hybrid, he would be the first to admit it. Wouk’s comment: He’d like to see a full-page mea culpa from the EPA in the Times or Wall Street Journal.

Did Wouk feel vindicated, the interviewer asked?

Yes, absolutely, he replied. And people high up in automotive technology now come to him and say, “I’m sorry I didn’t agree with you then. You’ve been right all along and we’ve been wrong.”

Yes, he felt vindicated. “But I won’t feel fully vindicated until I get that mea culpa letter from Mr. X [Stork] into the Times.”

Victor Wouk died of lung cancer in 2005 – although he had never smoked and had campaigned to keep smoking out of public places.

He was posthumously awarded the Elmer A. Sperry Award for Advancing the Art of Transportation. (Other winners had invented automatic transmission, jet-powered passenger aircraft, the Boeing 707, the Volkswagen, the GPS, the 747, the DC-3, and so forth.) The citation read: “To Victor Wouk for his visionary approach to developing gasoline engine-electric motor hybrid-drive systems for automobiles and his distinguished engineering achievements in the related technologies of small, lightweight, and highly efficient electric power supplies and batteries.”

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What will be history’s verdict with regard to the Wouk-Rosen hybrid?

A clue: Nick Yost writes in his book, “The Essential Hybrid Car Handbook” (The Lyons Press, 2006), “Credit for development of the modern hybrid car belongs rightfully to the Japanese manufacturers of Toyota and Honda.

“The United States could have had a 25-year head start on the rest of the world if only someone in government or the U.S. automobile industry had paid serious attention to Dr. Victor Wouk.”

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