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Think electric cars began with the Volt and the Prius?  Think again---electric cars have been with us from the very beginning . . .


1904 Columbia electric car, on exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

 The very first "horseless carriage", or wheeled vehicle that moved under its own power, was made in 1769 for the French Army by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot; it used a steam engine, had three wheels, and moved at 2.5 mph. In 1832, Scotsman Robert Anderson made a carriage that ran on an electric motor, and was powered by a bank of dry-cell batteries that could not be recharged. The first "true" automobiles, four-wheeled with gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines, were made in Germany; Karl Friedrich Benz produced his first model in 1885, followed by Gottlieb Wilhelm Daimler in 1886.

The earliest electric cars were hampered by the primitive battery technology of the time. It wasn't until 1859, a French physicist named Gaston Plante developed the first rechargeable electric battery, a "wet cell" that used lead immersed in acid. Plante's invention was further refined in 1881 by Camille Faure, and resulted in what is essentially the same lead-acid battery used today.

Subsequently, in 1884, the first really workable electric automobile was built by English industrialist Thomas Parker, who used high-capacity lead-acid batteries that he designed and produced himself. Parker had previously been in charge of introducing electric-driven trains to the London subway system. In the United States, the first practical electric car was introduced in 1891, by Scottish immigrant William Morrison, of Des Moines, Iowa. Morrison's vehicle used a bank of 24 rechargeable lead-acid batteries, could carry six people, and could move at 15 mph. It needed to be recharged every 50 miles.

By 1897, automobiles were appearing in every American city, and many of these were electric-powered--electric cars were outselling both steam and gasoline cars. The Baker Motor Vehicle Company introduced an electric car that could go over 100 miles on a charge. New York City introduced a fleet of electric taxis built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia; London's electric taxis, introduced the same year, were made by Walter C Bersey--they were nicknamed "Hummingbirds". By 1900, almost 40% of all the automobiles in the US were electric-powered. Although the motor technology limited electric cars to about 20 mph, they were quiet (gasoline engines had no mufflers yet), produced no vibration, and were virtually maintenance-free. And they could be started up with the push of a button, unlike gasoline engines, which at that time had hand-cranked mechanical starters.

Because of their sometimes limited range between charges, though, electric cars were most popular in cities, particularly among upper-class women. Many models of electric car came with luxuriously-styled interiors to appeal to the upper-class. To combat the problem of limited facilities for recharging (many homes in 1900 were still not wired for electricity), the General Vehicle Company (GVC), a subsidiary of the General Electric Corporation, introduced "exchangeable batteries", in which customers could bring in their batteries and exchange them for fully-charged ones.

It looked as if electric cars and the companies that produced them (such as the Baker Motor Vehicle Company, the Columbia Company, and the Electric Vehicle Company) would dominate the market. Then in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the gasoline-powered Model T.


1917 Anderson Detroit Model 61 electric car, on exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles

It was not its gasoline engine that allowed the Model T Ford to swiftly conquer the automobile market--it was its price. Built at large scale in assembly-line factories, the Model T was far cheaper than anything else available, whether steam, gasoline or electric. In 1912, Charles Kettering sealed the gasoline-powered automobile's position of dominance by producing a workable electric starter, which eliminated the need for hand-cranking. Now, the internal-combustion engine could also be started with the push of a button, and with gasoline fuel now plentiful and Henry Ford turning out cheap Model Ts by the hundreds, the electric car (and the steam car) soon virtually disappeared. The last gasp came in 1911, when the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago briefly produced the first gasoline-electric hybrid--its slow speed and mechanical complexity, however, made it unpopular.

By 1912, a typical electric car cost almost twice as much as a mass-produced gasoline Model T. The rapidly-expanding inter-city road system also began to place a premium on cars that could go long distances quickly, and electric cars were still technologically limited in their speed and range.

By 1920, the electric car was dead and forgotten. It did not reappear with any popularity until almost 100 years later.

Originally posted to SciTech on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 02:41 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and DK GreenRoots.

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Comment Preferences

  •  if Henry Ford's cheap mass-produced car had been (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp, Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

    electric instead of gas, current history may be different . .  would we have built an interstate electric-car infrastructure instead of gasoline?

    In the end, reality always wins.

    by Lenny Flank on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 02:55:15 PM PDT

    •  But you mentioned the limitations (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest, charliehall2

      Max speed of 20 mph.  Need to recharge every 100 miles, which would take very much longer than a fill up at the gas station on the interstate.  There was the Federal Highway Act of 1921 which created the old Route 1 and Route 40 and other highways with federal aid to the states, so the technology of the 1920's, not just the 1950's, had to be considered.

      "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

      by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:13:02 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  doubt it. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

      the battery tech was way beyond any manufacturing
      capacity prior to 1970.

      what makes batteries great today is not chemistry,
      it's manufacturing, we went from big plates to
      thin films on plastics.

      •  but they had a way to deal with the battery issue- (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        offgrid, Ojibwa, Jay C, RiveroftheWest

        -the battery exchanges.

        Such a thing is still a viable option for today's electrics---instead of recharging your car overnight, you just pull into a battery station when your battery is low, and exchange it for a fully-charged one, then keep driving.

        No new technological advances needed, just some engineering to make the battery pack easily replaceable.

        In the end, reality always wins.

        by Lenny Flank on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:18:07 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  The solution for long distance in 1910 was rail (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ojibwa, Jay C, RiveroftheWest

          if you wanted to go somewhere fast, you used a

          Let's try and figure it out,  early roads, you were talking 20 MPH?  and these were vehicles with 40 mile ranges?

          Every two hours you need a battery change.

          It's a little sporty at max speed or if the weather is cold,
          so you may need stations every 30 miles.

          Also, while Gasoline is a commodity, a battery may not be.
          if you had good batteries and you got swapped bad ones,
          you would be pissed.  

          I think now it's a very different matter with digital controllers and the internet, and maybe you could have set up a guarantee scheme back then, but, for the dealers, a 50 gallon gas tank or 200 gallon gas tank isn't a big investment, while 20 batteries sure could be expensive.  

          But, think if you wanted to go from DC to Chicago, a 1910 zephyr got you there fast and no trouble.

          •  a good point. but then, as now, I suspect most car (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            eyesoars, RiveroftheWest

            usage was less than 30 miles a day. Usually at far less than 70 mph. For most everyday use, those limitations of speed and distance in electric cars (or steam cars) were simply not a factor. They still aren't.

            In the US, we do still tend to use cars for long-distance travel, but in most of the rest of the world, high-speed trains are still the go-to method of long-distance travel.

            Electric cars, then and now, were and are entirely suited for the type of travelling that most people actually do every day--short distances at not-so-high speeds.

            As for rapid travel over long distances, it may be time to talk about whether cars (of any type) are a very good way to do that in the first place. . . . or ever were.


            In the end, reality always wins.

            by Lenny Flank on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 04:27:00 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Probably not. 1st car to break 100mph... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      offgrid, Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

      was an electric car.

      Gasoline is energy dense, @ 25mpg a 20 gallon tank got you 500 miles. As the diary notes many US houses did not yet have electricity. The motorist was faced with exchanging batteries or recharging at home.

      Meanwhile one gas station in a medium sized town made that town a way station for all motorists in need of gas.

      The market was going to shake out anyway, gas cars would be the winners regardless.

      Remember, a great mover and shaker in the US Navy claimed that coal would power Navy ships for took about 7 more years before the Navy started ordering oil boilers in its ships.

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:34:14 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  tips for your conclusion. /nt (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Navy Vet Terp, Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

    We are all pupils in the eyes of God.

    by nuclear winter solstice on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 02:57:31 PM PDT

  •  Some historical tidbits (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    patbahn, Ojibwa, Jay C, RiveroftheWest

    After he was shot on September 6, 1901, President McKinley was taken to the hospital in an electric ambulance.

    Edith Bolling Galt, later Edith Wilson, was the first woman to own and drive a car in the District of Columbia - it was an electric car which she would take to the White House upon her marriage to the President in 1915.  She was the first woman to get a drivers license in the District of Columbia.

    I remember the days of wet batteries when you had to periodically check each of the six cells to make sure there was enough fluid in each, and if any cell was low you poured in water and it would become battery acid.  Sometimes there was not enough light to tell so I would stick in my finger and then wipe my wet finger on my blue jeans.  After a wash or two, a line of holes and thinned material would appear where I had wiped my finger.  I ruined more than a few pants this way.

    "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

    by Navy Vet Terp on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:06:46 PM PDT

  •  I wonder if New Jersey forced them (5+ / 0-)

    to sell these electric cars through dealerships.

  •  you may want to discuss Edison Iron batteries too. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

    they were enabling tech for Electric cars but heavy.

  •  I would think that early electric cars had another (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Roger Fox, Ojibwa, RiveroftheWest

    shortcoming besides price, speed, and range. Rechargeable batteries, particularly lead-acid batteries, tend to wear out over time. Those cars may have had a 100 mile range when brand new, but it would have deteriorated every time you recharged those batteries. You'd also have to deal with memory effects if you didn't charge the battery fully every time.

    I don't know if the difference in lifespan was all that great in 1900, but by 1950 the difference would have been immense. You could get 100,000 miles out of a gasoline engine, but there's no way you'd get that out of a bank of lead-acid batteries. It's really only very recently that battery technology has improved enough to make them at all competitive with a gasoline engine in terms of lifespan.

    To believe that markets determine value is to believe that milk comes from plastic bottles. Bromley (1985)

    by sneakers563 on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:17:13 PM PDT

    •  Nickel metal hydride batteries made it happen (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa, Jay C, RiveroftheWest
      A NiMH battery can have two to three times the capacity of an equivalent size NiCd, and their energy density approaches that of a lithium-ion cell.

      Prior to gasoline having lead as an additive, one had to lap the valves in every few thousand miles, 10k at max. And oil filters were still optional in the early 1950's. So I wholeheartedly agree with this:
      but by 1950 the difference would have been immense.

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 03:46:32 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I've always wondered about collisions involving (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      batteries. Especially at higher speeds.

      Batteries often seem to be made of quite nasty, corrosive, and/or toxic stuff.

  •  Anderson Electric Car Company (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    manufactured electric cars, such as the Detroit Electric, from 1907 to 1939. The company built about 13,000 cars. The car was advertised as getting 80 miles between battery charging and had a top speed of about 20 miles per hour.

    •  oddly enough . . . (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ojibwa, Jay C, RiveroftheWest

      Most of us today still drive much less than 80 miles a day, and if we live in a city we do most of that at roughly 20 mph.


      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 04:50:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Which is why electric cars (0+ / 0-)

        have usually been a mainly urban phenomenon: even a hundred years ago, most Americans lived far-enough away from mass (rail) transit to need a vehicle with more than the few-score-of-miles range of contemporary electric. Yes, OK for those living in urban, or close-in suburbs; but eventually even they had to go with the improved gas-powered cars (originally hailed as being "so much cleaner" and beneficial for the environment because they didn't leave - ummm, so many "road apples" which had to be dealt with)...

  •  They were very popular with women drivers (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jay C, RiveroftheWest

    Hand-cranking an early gasoline powered car was both difficult and dangerous.

    It took a bit of strength and the crank could kick back and break your arm/wrist.

    If you'd forgotten to put the car in neutral, guess what was going to run over you right after it started up.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 06:26:45 PM PDT

  •  and now (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I like old Detroit Electrics and other ancient electric cars- they were very well built to high standards, comfortable, silent, dignified...the motors and circuitry pieces were well engineered. Riding in one is a fine experience. I like to go to museums and look at them.
    One thing I don't understand, though. Now the circuitry and control group seem extremely complex and seem to give designers and users some trouble. Why is digital control better than the analog/mechanical switching of a 1910s electric?
    I have often thought that a well-preserved and maintained Detroit Electric, well built as it is, would be practical with the highly advanced batteries used today.
    It appears to me that we have un-neccessarily re-invented and complicated the wheel, here.

    I buy and sell well trained riding mules and American Mammoth Jack Stock.

    by old mule on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 08:36:13 PM PDT

  •  Fascinating history, Lenny, thanks! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I had no idea the electric car was such a large market segment for so long.  Those days will return, it's inevitable.

    Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will. - - Antonio Gramsci

    by lehman scott on Thu Mar 13, 2014 at 08:49:37 PM PDT

  •  Hate to think of the environmental damage (0+ / 0-)

    that all the manufacturing and production of lead acid batteries would have caused had electric vehicles caught on.

  •  Too quiet... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    While doing genealogical research, I discovered a female ancestor who was run over and killed by an electric car in Ann Arbor, about 1903 IIRC.

    "Personally, I'm a cultured sort of fellow, I read all sorts of extraordinary books, you know, but somehow I can't seem to make out where I'm going, what it is I really want, I mean to say-to live or shoot myself, so to speak. " APC

    by Brian1066 on Sat Mar 15, 2014 at 11:56:39 AM PDT

    •  well look on the bright side, though . . . (0+ / 0-)

      At that time, it would have been a REALLY cool way to go.  It'd be the equivalent today of being hit by a fusion-powered car.  :)

      In the end, reality always wins.

      by Lenny Flank on Sat Mar 15, 2014 at 12:08:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  LOL (0+ / 0-)

        I've read the newspaper article. Didn't hear it and stepped in front of it.  Couldn't have been many pedestrian fatalities due to autos at that time.

        "Personally, I'm a cultured sort of fellow, I read all sorts of extraordinary books, you know, but somehow I can't seem to make out where I'm going, what it is I really want, I mean to say-to live or shoot myself, so to speak. " APC

        by Brian1066 on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 02:47:39 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Dangerous Electric (well, Hybrid) cars... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I am a happy Prius pilot...  who narrowly missed causing a tragedy a few weeks ago when a jogger, unable to hear my silent approach, wheeled around pretty much right in front of my bumper.  It was her time to turn around, & may have been her time to meet her Maker.  It's then that I decided the brakes on my Prius are pretty darned good.

    I now politely beep the horn so they know I'm coming, or else they might be, umm... going.

  •  By the way... (0+ / 0-)

    Great article, Lenny... We always learn something new from you.  Thanks!

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