Electric Car History

old san diego streetcar

Electric Vehicles: Yesterday's Future

1897 anthony electric Electric vehicles have existed since the late nineteenth century. In fact, in 1900 electric vehicles, including trolleys and trains, than there were gasoline-powered cars. Battery-powered trains were developed in the mid-19th century and widespread adoption began after Werner von Siemens debuted his electric passenger train at the 1879 Berlin Trade Fair. Siemens' train, powered by a third rail, transcended the limits of batteries and facilitated the development of electric streetcars.

As a means of local transportation, electric streetcars succeeded where steam engines–with their noise, sparks and steam–had failed and by 1900 they were adapted worldwide for use in railways, subways and short-range industrial environments such as mines.

Electric train development progressed rapidly. The adoption of AC current (which allows for higher voltages) enabled long-distance travel and higher speeds. Electric railways came to be seen as the future of transportation and planners envisioned that all systems of city and suburban traffic would become electric.

Though the streetcar was more prominent, electric cars developed in parallel. In the 1830's Scottish businessman Robert Anderson invented the first crude electric carriage. Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands, designed and built the small-scale electric car with Christopher Becker in 1835.

Electric Cars Flourish

Such a car, powered by a battery that would rapidly expire, had little potential until Gaston Planté's 1865 invention of the lead-acid battery which could be recharged. In 1881 Camille Faure's lead-oxide battery greatly increased capacity and conductivity, thus paving the way for electric cars to flourish.

detroit electric historical letterFrance and Great Britain spearheaded development of the electric car, soon followed by the United States. EVs broke land speed records and outsold gasoline models at the turn of the century. Gas-powered cars were considered noisy, uncomfortable, difficult to drive. They also required crank starting which was not only a pain, it could break your wrist. Have a look at this marketing letter from Detroit Electric agent J.F. Hayden who is "forcibly convinced that the Electric Automobile [sic] will largely supersede the gas cars."

Agent Hayden was not alone in his view. In addition to the electric car's superior comfort and safety, the processes of extracting and refining crude oil into a useable energy source was extremely expensive. Briefly stated, the future car of 1900 was electric, just as it is today.

Though the auto industry was still in its infancy, several companies manufactured electric vehicles in the U.S. Prominent names included:

These vehicles were sold primarily as “town cars” to affluent and high income individuals. Curiously, electric cars, with their tidy, crank-free operation, were also marketed as appropriate for women drivers. All was not perfect, however, with the electric car. They were still slow and had limited range. Batteries were cumbersome and leaked, spewing noxious fumes that belied their "clean" image.

Gasoline Wins The Day

Thomas Edison began to develop an improved battery for the electric auto. His patented alkaline battery was lighter weight and longer-lasting; the "Edison Storage Battery Company" was founded and successfully produced batteries for 70 years. Cars, however, were not the primary application. His battery development coincided with gasoline engine-related advances that sounded the death knell for the electric car.

The electric starter, invented and introduced by Cadillac in 1913, increased the potential of the internal combustion engine and provided a safe, effective, and consumer-friendly alternative to the hand-crank. However, it was the Model T, which debuted in 1908 without an electric starter, that really did in the electric car. Henry Ford's production model made autos affordable for the masses. Gasoline, at that time a by product of the burgeoning petroleum industry, was also cheap and increasingly available.

A final significant contribution to the inability of the electric car to flourish in the United States was the widespread adoption of Westinghouse's AC electric system, which could carry power for greater distances, in favor of Edison's DC system. Electric vehicles were rapidly deprived of a readily available DC power source for recharging and AC/DC converters were extremely costly.

Mass-produced gas-powered autos became the standard and cost one-third as much as their electric counterparts. By the 1930s, the electric automobile industry was defunct.

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