Electric Cars

History of Early Electric Cars

History of Early Electric Cars

Horses and carriages, or “buggies”, were the way humans got around as far as personal transportation before 1830. You could walk or take an early bicycle (they appeared in 1817) to get where you were going, but horses provided the power to move people around for a very long time.

You may be amazed to know that electric vehicles have been with us since well before the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine became popular. In fact, several inventors around the world were playing with the idea of putting a battery-powered electric motor in a conveyance with wheels since around 1828 when Anyos Jedlik made an electric toy car.

First Horseless Carriages

The invention of what we now refer to as an electric vehicle (EV) has to go to Scottish inventor Robert Anderson who made a full-size prototype 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. At about the same time several different inventors were developing electric-powered 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 the electric train from being practical at the time, 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 upon the design capacity for industrial use in 1881. Another French inventor named Gustave Trouve worked to improve electric motor efficiency and married his new motor to Faure’s rechargeable battery to create the first true rechargeable electric vehicle. The rudimentary powertrain was used in a James Starley tricycle and tested in 1881.

An English inventor named Thomas Parker, who was fascinated with developing more fuel-efficient vehicles, 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 which merged with the Electric Construction Company in 1888 to build electric taxi cabs and trams.

Meanwhile, in the good ol’ U.S.A., a chemist in Des Moines, Iowa, applied for a patent in 1890 for his “electric carriage.” William Morrison’s early EV was featured in a city parade in 1888. It was a six-passenger, four-horsepower wagon with a top speed of 14 miles per hour which needed to be recharged every 50 miles. Gathering a lot of attention by like-minded inventors, the race was soon on to mass produce EVs.

By 1897, electric taxi cabs were all the rage in London thanks to Walter Bersey’s “Hummingbird Cabs.” At the same time in New York City, the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company was running electrified hansom 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 North East. Like many start-up companies, it ran into many conflicts, personality issues, disputes between investors, and it 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-powered autos were proving to have their own birthing pains in the early-1900s. Outside of cities there were no paved roads, just rutted horse paths, and gas-powered cars were constantly getting stuck. Plus, they had to share those roads with horse-drawn carriages and horses positively hated the noise and stench produced by those loud, smelly internal combustion contraptions.

From a user point of view, early autos were hand-cranked in order to start them and that was a ponderous and even dangerous process. The electric starter didn’t come along until 1912. Gas-powered autos vibrated terribly and the pollution from their tailpipes was intense. Also keep in mind that the first automotive muffler was not invented until 1897 so early autos made a terrible racket. By comparison, early electric cars had no hand crank starters. They didn’t smell or pollute the air and they were extremely quiet. Horses and humans didn’t mind sharing the road with them nearly as much.

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 percent were gasoline-powered.

Ford Killed the EV

Henry Ford’s invention of a moving automobile 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. And 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 just couldn’t compete with Ford’s affordable “every man’s auto.” As a result, EV sales peaked by 1914. Having enjoyed a glimmer of success in the early 20th century, electric cars soon 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 that had greater range and that was something no electric car of the time could manage. EVs were confined to city use due to a limited range of 40 miles and top speeds of only 20 mph. Also, Ford’s mass produced autos cost less than half the price of any electric car at the time.

Affordable gasoline and affordable gas-powered cars made EVs obsolete. After all, no one at that time could have predicted that the noxious fumes from all those cars would someday cause enough greenhouse gases to destroy the earth’s protective ozone layer. No one thought that there would someday be over 1.4 billion CO2-sprewing vehicles contributing 60 percent of pollutants in the air.

Electric cars maintained a small market for a while. For instance, the 1923 Detroit Electric managed a top speed of 25 mph and a range of 80 miles. But it wasn’t enough to compete with ever-advancing internal-combustion technology and the fact that the EV cost ten times the price of a Ford.

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 vehicles were delegated 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, EVs tend to pop up again. Case in point, after World War II gas was hard to come by and very expensive in Japan. The Tama company produced electric cars as taxi cabs to aide transportation in postwar Japan. We know that company today by the name Nissan.

While Detroit ruled the American roads with gas-guzzling vehicles for over 90 years, there were occasional 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. But the Kilowatt was more of an expensive novelty than a serious car and it ended production in 1961.

American Motors Corporation (AMC) looked into producing an EV with a “self-charging battery” in 1959 and several “concept cars” appeared in the early 1960’s. One of those concepts was General Motors’ 1964 Corvair-based Electrovair. Its silver-zinc batteries made it 800 pounds heavier than a regular Corvair and top speed was only 80 mph. It is rumored that the battery pack cost upwards of $160,000. As you might guess, the Electrovair never made it to production.

No less a name than General Electric developed its Delta experimental EV in 1967. The prototype could manage 55 mph and 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 similarly 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.