The Great Aha

Everyone in the village of Kalkerville knew the Tuckers.

Young Ed operated the local stagecoach business, moving the locals, their goods and their mail. For years, Ed’s dad, Jim, had been the familiar face sitting on top of the coach, wheedling the horses. But after the elder died, Ed picked up the reins of the family business.

Like his father, Ed was a no-nonsense skeptic who didn’t have a lot of patience. Quick to offer advice, and slow to take any, Ed had a tendency to shut his mind like a barn door.

By early 1914, the occasional motorcar could be seen puttering down the streets of Kalkerville, piquing curiosity among locals. Not Ed. It didn’t take more than one drink to put a smirk on his face and get him ranting: “None of them automobiles could pull a load of folks and trunks through the deep sand,” he’d say loudly to friends, “and do it day after day.”

Ed knew the robust reliability of a stagecoach pulled by trusty horses. Rain, snow or shine, his team of two, sometimes four, animals could haul paying passengers from Kalkerville over the big hill to Dart — a 23-kilometer journey — in half a day. Deadheading wasn’t a problem: on arrival, six returning fares would be waiting at the Dart station, near the saloon on Main Street.

Most days, Ed was home before 8:00. He’d sit down for a late meal with his family, tell tall tales about the day, then tend to the horses and get ready to do it all over again the next morning.

Ed appeared to lead a simple life, but running a stagecoach line wasn’t easy. Repairing the canopy-covered coach was a relentless job. The wooden wagon wheels took a beating and needed repair after almost every trip.

Harnesses, yokes and hinges were prone to damage, especially after being pulled in bad weather — mud and snow were particularly unforgiving. Of course, the greatest obligation wasn’t mechanical, it was the time and expense of caring for the horses.

Despite these responsibilities, as far as Ed was concerned, there was no way a noisy mechanical contraption called a “horseless carriage” could compete with the tried-and-true stamina of animal power. “After all,” he was fond of saying, “horses and carts have been moving folks around since the time of them Romans.”


Ed appeared to lead a simple life, but running a stagecoach line wasn’t easy.

By the late 19th century, carriage designs were sophisticated. However, that complexity required specialized parts, which meant longer, costlier repairs.

THOSE NAGS’LL EAT YOUR PROFITS

I came across Ed’s story in the Canadian edition of Ford Times from April 1914. As usual, I found this nostalgic gem in a disorganized antique store, under a pile of neglected Life magazines, superhero comics and tattered calendars.

Ford Times shilled the virtues of owning a Ford automobile. Back then, the rage was the now-iconic Model T, including the touring car, runabout, town car and coupe. Blurbs like “Play it safe — buy a Ford” or “Less than a two-cent stamp is the cost per mile of Ford travel” are splashed throughout the 45-page issue.

“Knowing the Ford,” Ed’s story, is toward the end. Before I started reading it, two cartoons caught my attention. One shows a pair of horses gobbling up dollar bills from a box labeled “PROFITS.” In case the message isn’t obvious, the caption spells it out: “Where the profit used to go.” Businesses that relied on horses saw their profits eaten up — and were already in the past tense.

Flipping the page, I chuckled at the second anti-horse cartoon. A couple of unresponsive nags pull a dilapidated stagecoach. Its smug caption states unequivocally, “What the Ford replaced.”

In the early days of the Model T, Ford Times liked to belittle the entrenched competition, a hallmark of corporate house organ publications.

That word — “replaced” — fast-forwarded my mind to today, when governments and businesses want to accelerate the transition away from or, more bluntly, replace the wasteful, polluting elements of our legacy energy systems. For example, there’s a push to replace billions of inefficient yet deeply entrenched devices, like incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, or old air conditioners with new energy-efficient ones. Furnaces, refrigerators and anything that recklessly guzzles fuel is a target. More topical — and analogous here — is all the excitement about swapping out petroleum-powered cars with the next era of personal transport: electric vehicles.

We know how events unfolded in the early 20th century: automobiles like the Ford Model T quickly liberated horses from their monotonous pulling chores. With that, carriage makers went out of business, and hardheaded stagecoach operators succumbed to the same disruptive forces of mechanization.

But the benefits of that transition were tangible. The challenge today — and it’s a big one — is to convince skeptical individuals that the contrast between what they already own and its replacement is as stark as the difference between a rickety stagecoach and a shiny new car.

CLARITY IN A CLOUD OF DUST

Ed was clearly in denial of change, staid in the same views inherited from his father’s meat-and-potatoes DNA. Yet his aha moment came one day as he “was plodding along with a load toward Dart.”

I imagined Ed daydreaming while sitting atop his coach full of six passengers. The creaks and jangles of his rig were hypnotic as he stared mindlessly at the same old ruts in the road.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar noise broke the monotony. “A Ford touring car filled to the brim with young people — six, to be exact — pulled out from behind and went whizzing past.”

I love how the author remarks on the passengers’ youth. Even back then, progressive-minded 20-somethings were the target market for new technology.



Ford Times was Ford’s highly successful house organ publication. Published between 1908 and 1917 and then again from 1943 to 1993, the magazine enjoyed a peak circulation of more than 2 million. Its goal was similarly lofty: to convince people that, by purchasing a Ford, they were contributing to America’s moral fabric. A Model T was a democratizer. Ford himself pitched it as “a motor car for the great multitude.” Content in Ford Times suggested that to buy a Ford was to support American ingenuity, build community and even engender democracy.

Related Vignettes

Seeing the automobile “go spinning up the road until it went out of sight in a cloud of dust” caused Ed to think pretty hard. The passenger load between Kalkerville and Dart was getting busy enough to justify investing in another stagecoach and more horses. Ed had been wondering if he should make the investment. Sure, more potential to make money was there. But the additional costs of keeping horses and hiring people would dig into profits.

Lucky for Ed, the Ford that whizzed by had him thinking all the way to Dart. It was that three-and-a-half-hour ride that invoked his “Aha!”

The rest of the story unfolds as you’d expect. Ed bought a Model T touring car and started hauling mail bags and people.

“I can go back a’whistlin’,” he boasted. “Made the fourteen miles in just fifty minutes. Clipped about two hours and a half off the team’s time without half tryin’.”

Three years later, Ed’s Ford was a Kalkerville institution, respected and admired by the whole community. His customers were happy because they had faster transport in greater comfort. Ed was happy because his per-trip profits were greater.

In fact, Ed’s fortunes were even better than he’d imagined. Instead of one round trip, he could make as many as four, quadrupling his already fatter bank account. Pulling ability also played to his favor: his strongest horse, Jimmy, could pull almost as much as a Model T could, but only for a moment. By contrast, Ed’s new car could be seen “whizzing up the sand road as if it hadn’t any load at all.” Finally, Ed had more time in the evening because he wasn’t working on his carriage. His Model T had been performing well for three years and was “good for as many years more.”

Electric technology lagged when it came to lighting appliances on cars. So, until 1920, kerosene oil lit the Model T’s taillamps.

All this sounded great, but the story makes no mention of price, so my usual curiosity led me to do some research. In 1914, a new Model T touring car could be had for $550. By contrast, a premium horse-drawn McLaughlin carriage had a sticker price of $150, but that didn’t include all the gear, such as harnesses, reins and yoke. Nor did it include the horses and barn to keep them in.

So, in my estimation, the cost to set up a transport company in 1914 was nearly the same, whether with a stagecoach or automobile — about $550. In fact, all expenses considered, the Model T might even have been cheaper.

Same price up front. Four times the productivity of a team of horses. Five times the power. Longer range. Greater comfort. More reliability. Lower operating costs and maintenance. This was the proverbial no-brainer.

Adoption of the Model T was swift — within a decade, it had penetrated markets worldwide. More than just a mass-produced product, the “Tin Lizzy” was a society changer.

FROM HO-HUM TO AHA!

At the risk of showing my age, I remember being taught how to use a slide rule in the last year of high school. A classmate boldly asked our physics teacher, “Why do we need to learn this? Everyone is starting to buy calculators.”

Our teacher shrugged and smiled, tacitly admitting the looming obsolescence of the two sliding sticks engraved with tick marks. But it was part of the laggard school curriculum, so we had to go through the motions of learning how to manipulate the same tool Isaac Newton had used when he was a budding math nerd in the 17th century.

Being a geek myself, that same year I used my savings to buy my first Texas Instruments electronic calculator, validating the step change in solving math problems.

That was the beginning of many similar leaps I’ve made between what I call “high-contrast” technological innovations. In other words, the difference between inferior old stuff and new stuff that’s irresistibly compelling: CDs over vinyl, computer over typewriter, flat-screen monitor over tube TV, GPS over paper maps, smartphone over dumb phone and streaming movies over DVDs.

Then there’s the stuff that wasn’t all that much better from what was in use. The laser disc, 3D television, satellite phone, Apple Newton and a long list of doomed products — new technologies that didn’t make it, in large part because they weren’t different enough from what people were already using. Quite often they were more expensive too.

As I finished “Knowing the Ford,” I wondered what would have happened if the Model T had only been as good as, or marginally better than, a team of horses pulling a quality carriage.

Imagining myself sitting in the Kalkerville saloon, I could hear Ed’s boisterous three-whiskey voice blurting out, “Why would I buy one of them things? I bet a round of drinks that my two best horses could win a race to Dart and back! For less money too!”

And he might have been right.

Had the benefits of the Ford not far outstripped that of the reigning mode of transport, adoption of the motorized vehicle might have plodded along at the pace of a rickety old stagecoach.

And what of electric vehicles? In the last century, their appeal has gone through fits and starts, but guppy-looking vehicles like GM’s EV1 were never able to deliver that no-brainer utility to car buyers.

Yet, almost a hundred years after my issue of Ford Times was published, a new era dawned. In 2012, Tesla Motors introduced its sexy Model S sedan. Soon after, its whiplash-inducing performance won it the coveted Motor Trend Car of the Year. Then came the Model X SUV. Both the S and the X did well, but at $100,000-plus for a set of wheels, they were targeted to the affluent.

With the 2017 launch of the Model 3, Tesla finally offered a more affordable model built for the masses. Many believed it was the turning point for electric vehicles, much as Ford’s Model T was a century prior. GM and Volkswagen quickly jumped into the fray, while Chinese companies BYD and Geely jockeyed for position in the world’s largest consumer market. It was easy to understand the excitement. But I was still skeptical about the pace of change.


What would have happened if the Model T had only been as good as, or marginally better than, a team of horses pulling a quality carriage?

As Ford Times did a century ago, electric-vehicle companies like Tesla extol the virtues of EVs and belittle the entrenched competition: petroleum-fueled cars that trace their lineage back to the Model T.

I’m telling Ed’s story in the early days of the electric vehicle revolution. New-age automakers have yet to win over the pre-aha Ed Tucker types, those unyielding naysayers who are perfectly satisfied driving their gas-guzzlers. While the need to eradicate carbon emissions spewing out of a billion exhaust pipes is obvious, it’s clearly not an “Aha!” for the majority of consumers. In fact, North Americans are uprating their personal transport needs to even bigger pickup trucks and SUVs.

A large part of my career has been based on assessing the likelihood of nascent technologies displacing what’s deeply rooted in society. Often I’m not simply deriving conclusions from a spreadsheet — I consider the human side of the equation too. Does this technology address a real need? If people don’t see the need, it runs the risk of going the way of so many other ho-hum products.

After many reads of my Ford Times, I’ve realized Ed’s story is about more than the evolution of personal transport. It’s about human need, and how it informs the broader question: “What makes people buy new, disruptive products?” When it comes to pitching out the DVD collection for Netflix, the answer is obvious. But not all innovations are such slam dunks.

So, if in doubt about the business case for a new product, I always ask myself, “Is this an Ed Tucker moment?”


If people don’t see the need, it runs the risk of going the way of a long list of ho-hum products.

Unless a technology can compete against a new innovation on cost, quality and — often most importantly — how well it satisfies a human need, it will suffer the same fate as the carriage: becoming a curiosity from days gone by.