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1966 GM Electrovan Smithsonian Collection Correction

Every once in a while I have a reader write in with a correction for the Hydrogen Cars Now website or blog. This is a healthy situation since it keeps the information on this site more up-to-date and accurate.

One such person is Hal Wallace, Associate Curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s NMAH Electricity Collections Division. Mr. Wallace took exception to some of the verbiage I wrote on the 1966 GM Electrovan page, where I had pointed an accusatory finger at the Institution for having declined the Electrovan in its collections many years ago.

Mr. Wallace said, “I wasn’t here at the time and can’t tell you exactly why a donation of the Electrovan was declined. However I can say that the statement that the Smithsonian had “never heard of a hydrogen fuel cell before” is in error.

“In 1972, the National Museum of History & Technology (now the National Museum of American History) featured an exhibition on energy conversion that included displays of fuel cells. A Union Carbide fuel cell of the type used in the Electrovan was demonstrated in the museum during that exhibition and remains in the Electricity Collections today. Also displayed was the 1959 Allis-Chalmers fuel cell tractor, donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1960.

“During the late 1960s the curatorial staff at this museum obtained fuel cells and related items from Texas Instruments and from the US Army. The National Air & Space Museum also holds Gemini and Apollo fuel cells in their collections.

“There are many reasons we decline donations, and we decline far more than we accept. I can only speculate that the van may have been in poor condition, or perhaps the curators at the time decided there were higher priorities for our limited storage space and conservation resources. Whatever their reasons, the curators at the time were well aware of hydrogen fuel cells.

“Your readers might be interested to see images of the tractor, as well as images of the DeSoto ‘Cella 1′ mock-up that are posted on our Science Service Historical Images website.”

You can click here for more information.

Mr. Wallace went on to say, “Only a very small part of the national collections are on display at any time and finding storage space is a chronic problem. We do use the collections for more than gallery exhibitions – just last week I gave a lecture on fuel cell history to a teachers’ workshop conducted by the National Science Resources Center at which I displayed our Electrovan fuel cell. But most of those other uses are much more difficult with large objects simply because they are large.

“I can well imagine the curators 40 years ago asking themselves – since we may only be able to collect one fuel cell vehicle, is this the one to collect? Is it the best representative of fuel cell vehicle technology? I had to answer that very question for the Wind Furnace, then justify my reasons to my colleagues and the museum administration. Large objects entail a large commitment of resources, along with opportunity costs.

“Do we commit those resources now, on this object, or do we wait and see if a better object comes along? By better I mean, more historically significant, in better physical condition, somewhat smaller, etc. I’m not implying that the Electrovan is insignificant, only recognizing that significance is a relative term. Any collection decision is a judgment call based on many factors and sometimes it’s a tough call to make. “

Mr. Wallace also offer a link to an excellent fuel cell history website for those who are interested in the development of this technology in the 50’s and 60’s. One of the many surprises to me on both of these websites is that fuel cell forklifts (which are recently being sold as commercial production vehicles) actually had been created as prototypes in the early 1960’s.

Many thanks for Hal Wallace for the correction, additional information and excellent links he has provided.

About Hydro Kevin Kantola

Hydro Kevin Kantola
I'm a hydrogen car blogger, editor and publisher interested in documenting the history and the progression of hydrogen cars, vehicles and infrastructure worldwide.

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