History of Early Electric Cars

By
Laurance Yap
Updated:
Sep 2022
Time to read:
7
min
Did you know that the first battery-powered electric vehicle hit the road in 1838? Gasoline didn't always rule the automotive world, and you can learn more about the early history of electric driving here.
Important date in electric car history

History of Early Electric Cars

Horses and carriages were the way humans got around as far as personal transportation before 1830. You could walk or take a bicycle (they appeared in 1817) to get you to your destination – but horses were what moved people around for a long time.

You might be surprised to know that electric cars have been with us since before the gasoline engine became popular. In fact, several inventors were experimenting with the idea of putting a battery-powered electric motor since around 1828.

First Horseless Carriages

What we now refer to as an electric vehicle (EV) was created by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson, who made a full-size electric “horseless carriage” in 1838. However, Anderson’s creation was more of an experiment than a practical conveyance, since his carriage used batteries that were not rechargeable.

Around the same time, different inventors were developing electric trains. The first practical application, by another Scot named Robert Davidson, was tested on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway in 1842. Limited power and crude batteries kept it from being practical – plus, after its test run, steam locomotive railway workers destroyed the prototype as they saw it as a threat to their future job security.

French physicist Gaston Plante came up with the first rechargeable lead-acid battery in 1859, and French scientist Camille Alphonse Faure improved on the design for industrial use in 1881. Another French inventor named Gustave Trouve improved electric motor efficiency and married his motor to Faure’s rechargeable battery to create the first rechargeable electric vehicle. The rudimentary powertrain was used in a James Starley tricycle, tested in 1881.

An English inventor named Thomas Parker built the first production electric car in 1884. Parker is famous for electrifying the London underground tramways, and his EV was produced by the Elwell-Parker Company.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., chemist William Morrison in Des Moines, Iowa, applied for a patent in 1890 for his “electric carriage.” It was featured in a city parade in 1888; a six-passenger, four-horsepower wagon with a top speed of 14 mph, which needed to be recharged every 50 miles.

By 1897, electric taxi cabs were all the rage in London thanks to Walter Bersey’s “Hummingbird Cabs.” At the same time, the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company were running electrified cabs in the Big Apple. This attracted eager investors, and by 1900 there were fleets of cabs in Boston, Baltimore, and other cities in the northeast. Like many start-up companies, it ran into conflicts, personality issues, and investor disputes, and expanded too quickly. 

Samuel’s Electric Carriage Co. was out of business by 1907. But an offshoot company created by some of Samuel’s investors partnered with gasoline car and motorcycle maker, Pope. The new company, named Columbia, went on to build over 1,000 electric cars.

“Look Ma, No Smell!”

Gasoline cars were having their own issues in the early-1900s. Outside of cities, there were no paved roads – just horse paths – and gas-powered cars constantly got stuck. Plus, they had to share those roads with horse-drawn carriages – and horses hated the noise and stench produced by loud, smelly internal-combustion contraptions.

Early cars were hand-cranked – starting them was a ponderous and even dangerous process and the electric starter didn’t come along until 1912. Gas-powered cars vibrated terribly and the pollution and racket from their tailpipes were intense. By comparison, early electric cars had no hand crank starters, didn’t smell or pollute the air, and were extremely quiet.

By 1912, most American homes were wired for electricity, and that helped early EVs to be accepted and adopted. At that time, 40 percent of cars were still powered by steam, 38 percent were powered by electricity, and only 22 per cent were gasoline-powered.

Ford Killed the Electric Car

Henry Ford’s moving assembly line in 1912 allowed him to build a car in just 33 minutes. This dropped the cost of a Model T to only $650 – while an electric car sold for $1,750. The more cars Ford built, the cheaper they got. By 1915, Ford produced over 300,000 cars a year and could sell you a Model T for just $390. More-expensive electric cars were mainly ornate carriages for the wealthy and couldn’t compete with Ford’s affordable “every man’s auto.” As a result, EV sales started declining after their peak in 1914, and lost their footing to the gasoline-powered car.

Roads across the country were improving as more people bought gas-powered cars in the 1920s. Better roads meant a need for cars with greater range – and that was something no expensive electric car of the time could manage. EVs were confined to the city, with limited range and top speeds of only 20 mph.

Affordable gasoline and gas-powered cars made EVs obsolete in the twenties. No one could predict that the noxious fumes from all those cars would someday contribute to a greenhouse gas crisis. 

When Gas Ruled the World

By 1935, most electric car companies had either converted to gasoline-powered vehicles or had gone out of business. Electric cars were relegated to being novelty or specialty transportation such as British milk delivery vans or the electric golf carts that began to appear in the 1950s.

However, whenever gasoline becomes scarce, electric cars re-emerge. After World War Two, gas was hard to come by and very expensive in Japan. The Tama company produced electric cars as taxicabs – we know that company today by the name Nissan.

While Detroit ruled American roads with gas-guzzling vehicles for decades, there were electric-car experiments. During the 1950’s, the National Electric Company (maker of Exide batteries) and Henney Coachworks produced an electric car called the Henney Kilowatt. It had a top speed of 60 mph and could travel 50 miles on a charge. An expensive novelty, it ended production in 1961.

American Motors Corporation (AMC) investigated producing an EV with a “self-charging battery” in 1959, and several concept cars appeared in the early 1960’s, including General Motors’ 1964 Corvair-based Electrovair. Its silver-zinc batteries made it 800 pounds heavier than a regular Corvair, and its top speed was only 80 mph. The Electrovair never made it to production.

General Electric introduced its Delta experimental electric car in 1967. The prototype could manage 55 mph and had a range of 40 miles – nothing to write home about by today’s standards. Ford produced a similar experimental car using nickel-cadmium batteries with unimpressive results. The world, it seemed, was waiting for better battery technology – and lithium-ion cells were still 30 years away.

But then something happened that put electric vehicles back on the front burner. It was something called the energy crisis.

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