The history of electric cars and other automobiles is rife with inventive four-wheeled transportation solutions. The first electric vehicles appeared much before the first gasoline-powered automobiles.
Electric vehicles have been around for quite some time, but examples from more recent times include the General Motors EV1 from the late 1990s and even the Tesla from today. In point of fact, electric vehicles came before those that were driven by internal combustion, and innovators have never ceased striving to make them usable on public roads and successful as a business endeavor. Let’s take a close look at the steps that got us to this point because a lack of historical context can frequently lead to misunderstandings about how things got to be the way they are right now.
Earlier, electric cars
We begin in the 1830s with Robert Anderson of Scotland, whose motorized carriage was built between 1832 and 1939. Galvanic cells were still used, so it was more of a show than a mode of transportation (“Look! No ox or horse, yet it moves!”). In 1837, another Scot, Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built the first electric locomotive. A larger, more powerful version was demonstrated to be capable of hauling six tons 1.5 miles at four miles per hour.
It then requires fresh batteries. Workers on the railroad were so scared by this amazing show, which they saw as a threat to their jobs fixing steam engines, that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he called Galvani.
In 1859, rechargeable batteries were invented, which increased the practicality of the electric car concept. Thomas Parker, who also helped establish electric trams in England in 1884, built a prototype electric automobile. William Morrison, a Scottish-born chemist from Des Moines, Iowa, applied for a patent on the electric car he had built by 1890.
According to the Des Moines Register, it first appeared in a city procession in 1888. It had 24 battery cells, 4 horsepower, a top speed of 20 miles per hour, front-wheel drive, and required 50 miles to fully recharge. Morrison’s self-propelled carriage caused quite a stir at the renowned World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Morrison, who had inspired other inventors, was more concerned with batteries than with mobility.
Columbia to Electrobat EVs
Electrobat! Isn’t that a great name? It is a component of the world’s first commercially successful EV project. Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris of Philadelphia received a patent in 1894 for modifying battery-powered street cars and boats. Their rear-steer carriages traveled 25 miles at a top speed of 20 mph in 1896, powered by two 1.1-kW motors.
The Electrobat [at left] started out quite slow and heavy (like a trolley car, with steel “tires” and 1600 pounds of batteries on board), but it eventually switched to pneumatic tires and lighter materials. In 1896, Riker’s Electrobats and another electric vehicle won several five-mile sprint races against gasoline Duryea automobiles.
Morris and Salom incorporated that year, reaching the “cash-in” stage of a successful startup. To compete with the horse-drawn taxis that were then available in New York, they built a few electric Hansom cabs. They later sold the technology to Isaac L. Rice, who founded the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) in New Jersey. Around the turn of the century, New York had around 600 electric taxis running, with smaller fleets in Boston, Baltimore, and other eastern cities. In turn, he recruited wealthy partners and investors.
In order to reduce the amount of time it takes to recharge batteries, a battery-swapping station was created in New York where cabs could pull up, have their used batteries replaced with fresh ones, and then drive away. Brilliant, but like many new businesses, it grew too fast and ran into problems between partners and investors that no one could have predicted. By 1907, the whole cab company had failed.
Exide was originally EVC’s battery supplier and investor. Pope, a gasoline-car pioneer, used the Columbia name and technology to create a limited number of cars for mass sale. Before Ransom Olds and Henry Ford caught up, Columbia built 1,000 units.
Electric cars dominated early motorsports. Camille Jenatzy’s spring 1899 speed feats climaxed when he built electric carriages near Paris. Using La Jamais Contente, he broke 100 km/h and 60 mph records (also known as “the Never Satisfied”).
The machine was shaped like a torpedo and was driven by two direct-drive 25-kW motors that each drew 124 amps (about 67 horsepower) and ran at 200 volts. The machine was made of the lightweight aluminum alloy known as partinium. La Jamais Contente had Michelin tires from 2004 to 2014, and the French tire company utilized a 1994 replica as a sort of mascot for their Challenge Bibendum series of rallies for environmentally friendly transportation.
The History of Electric Vehicles Features Several Well-Known Names
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a veritable explosion of inventions that improved upon the vehicle. Cars are still mostly seen as luxury items for the wealthy, so there isn’t a huge demand for them, which helps steam power thrive. Diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles are falling behind. During this time, several notable manufacturers dabbled in electrics.
Ransom Before creating the first mass-produced Oldsmobile cars, Eli Olds developed a small number of electric horseless carriages; the only one still in existence is displayed in a museum in Lansing, Michigan, which took on the role of Oldsmobile following a fire in Mr. Olds’s Detroit factory. He did not create any electric automobiles in Lansing, but General Motors would do it over a century later.
Another distinctive museum piece is the Egger-Lohner C.2 Phaeton [top right], created by the 23-year-old Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, whose son would build the present Porsche company after World War II. The 1898 automobile’s electric drive system weighed 286 pounds, generated 5 horsepower, and had a 22 mph top speed for the buggy. Even though it doesn’t seem particularly impressive compared to Morrison’s “auto” from the 1893 World’s Fair, it won a 25-mile race for electric automobiles at a Berlin exhibition on September 28, 1899.
Then there’s Studebaker, which started out making wagons and carriages before transitioning to electric cars in the twentieth century. Thomas Edison is shown driving his personal 1902 Studebaker Electric in the left image. Edison and a camping buddy, Henry Ford, both experimented with electric cars and built at least one prototype before deciding that the gasoline engine held more promise for the future.
One factor was the lack of widespread electricity outside of urban areas, which severely limited the market for vehicles that relied on that infrastructure. Drivers could transport more gas cans for longer trips, but extra batteries were much heavier per watt of energy.
20th Century Electric Cars
On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot and killed while visiting the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The HBO/Cinemax TV show The Knick is about a hospital in New York City in 1900 and 1901. This picture is of the electric-powered ambulance that took him to the hospital.
Despite surviving the gunshot wound, McKinley died eight days later from gangrene. Prior to the trip to the hospital, he had driven a Stanley Steamer for a demonstration ride, making him the first American president to do so.
Theodore Roosevelt, who was McKinley’s vice president and became president after him, is often given this honor because he was the first person to ride in a Columbia electric car in public in 1902. The Ohioan’s time spent in a native electric ambulance should cement his place in history as the first president to drive a car.
What’s the history of electric cars?
Although it had a range of 80 miles and a top speed of 25 mph, by the time this 1923 Detroit Electric was built (yes, in Detroit), it was too late for the early electric car business and for this company in particular. Detroit Electric, founded in 1907, performed successfully in the electric automotive market, despite the fact that Baker and Milburn were more inventive. Electric vehicles continued to have a market, especially in urban areas where their quiet operation and ease of use appealed to many.
The advent of internal combustion engine cars did not change this. Stores in major cities installed charging stations to cater to the affluent female drivers who did not want to use a manual starter.
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However, the price of a Ford Model T was much lower and actually went down over time. The first Model T sold for $850 in 1908. Most electric cars at the time were priced at least twice as high as conventional ones. In 1923, the price of a Model T was less than $300, while the average price of an electric car was over $10,000.
In the middle of the 1910s, a Detroit Electric upgrade battery pack that used Edison’s nickel-iron cells cost $600 on its own. Rich people like Clara Ford, Henry Ford’s wife, didn’t care about this. She didn’t like her husband’s car because it was loud and dirty, so she drove a series of Detroit Electrics from 1908 to 1914.
Ironically, the electric motor was the greatest threat to battery-powered vehicles and the one that overcame Clara’s doubts. When the electric starter was created, the problem of manually cranking gas-powered vehicles was resolved (developed by Charles Kettering at Dayton Engineering, originally for the 1912 Cadillac). Fuel availability and rising gas prices during World War I gave electrics a modest boost, but by the middle of the 1920s, Detroit Electric’s “new” cars were frequently built on bodies that had been manufactured years before and were unsold. However, between 1907 and 1939, it manufactured almost 35,000 autos.
Shipments, and taxis.
Before the start of World War II, gasoline had already won the technical race, and the bulk of makers of electric cars had either shifted their focus to internal combustion engines or gone out of business. Nevertheless, electric vehicles (EVs) continued to have a number of benefits, in particular for the low-speed, short-distance uses that are typical in urban settings. The United Kingdom maintained a fleet of electric “milk floats” for home delivery well into the 1980s and beyond, despite the fact that gasoline was hard to come by and expensive after the war in Japan.
The government supported the development of electric vehicles, and the Nissan Museum is home to the 1947 Tama (the Tama company grew into Prince, which evolved into Datsun/Nissan). It was ideal for taxi service, exactly like electric automobiles were in New York 50 years earlier, and could go at a speed of about 20 mph with a range of 40 miles on lead-acid batteries.
A Serious Effort
You may be wondering, “Isn’t that a Renault Dauphine?” Yes, that is the case. Actually, it’s not like that at all. In reality, this is a Henney Kilowatt. There was never a full loss of interest in electric cars because people thought they would work. Henney, a bespoke coachworks, was eager for new clients as Packard’s life came to a close because the company supplied so many of his hearses, ambulances, and limousines.
In 1953, Henney purchased Eureka Williams and eventually merged with National Union Electric Co., a conglomerate that also owned Exide batteries and Emerson radios. If a battery manufacturer and a coachbuilder shared a building, it would make perfect sense to experiment with electric vehicle production.
Caltech scientists and engineers collaborated with Henney to create a speed controller and motor system that allowed his first kilowatt to go 40 miles at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour and operate on a 36-volt system in 1959. Changes to 72 volts in 1960 made speeds of 60 mph and ranges of 60 miles more practical.
Henney manufactured the bodywork on U.S.-made chassis utilizing Renault tools and parts. The speed controller used diodes and relays.
Henney did not have a successful dealer, sales, or distribution network. Despite producing approximately 100 chassis, only 47 finished vehicles were sold. Despite the fact that a Dauphine was advertised at $1,645, the promoted price of $3,600 was clearly an unprofitable goal. The majority of sales were made to utility company fleets. Only a few are currently preserved in collections.
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