History of the electric vehicle

Electricity is one of the oldest automobile propulsion methods still in use today. The invention of the electric vehicle is attributed to various people, including the Hungarian inventor of the electric motor, Ányos Jedlik, Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands, and Scotsmen Robert Davidson and Robert Anderson. The invention of improved battery technology, including efforts by Gaston Plante in France in 1865, as well as his fellow countryman Camille Faure in 1881, paved the way for electric cars to flourish in Europe. France and the United Kingdom were the first nations to support the widespread development of electric vehicles, while the lack of natural fossil resources in Switzerland resulted in the rapid electrification of its railway network to reduce its dependence on foreign energy. English inventor Thomas Parker, who was responsible for innovations such as electrifying the London Underground, overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham, and the smokeless fuel coalite, claimed to have perfected a working electric car as early as 1884. Before the pre-eminence of internal combustion engines, electric automobiles also held many speed and distance records. Among the most notable of these records was the breaking of the 100 km/h (62 mph) speed barrier, by Camille Jenatzy on April 29, 1899 in his ‘rocket-shaped’ vehicle Jamais Contente, which reached a top speed of 105.88 km/h (65.79 mph). Before the 1920s, electric automobiles were competing with petroleum-fueled cars for urban use of a quality service car.[2]

German electric car, 1904, with the chauffeur on top

It was not until 1895 that Americans began to devote attention to electric vehicles, after A.L. Ryker introduced the first electric tricycles to the US, many innovations followed, and interest in motor vehicles increased greatly in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1897, electric vehicles found their first commercial application as a fleet of electrical New York City taxis, built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia, was established. Electric cars were produced in the US by Anthony Electric, Baker, Columbia, Anderson, Edison [disambiguation needed], Studebaker, Riker, and others during the early 20th century. In 1917, the first gasoline-electric hybrid car was released by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago. The hybrid was a commercial failure, proving to be too slow for its price, and too difficult to service.

1912 Detroit Electric advertisement

Despite their relatively slow speed, electric vehicles had a number of advantages over their early-1900s competitors. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, and electric vehicles did not require gear changes. Electric cars found popularity among well-heeled customers who used them as city cars, where their limited range proved to be even less of a disadvantage. The cars were also preferred because they did not require a manual effort to start, as did gasoline cars which featured a hand crank to start the engine. Electric cars were often marketed as suitable vehicles for women drivers due to this ease of operation.

Thomas Edison and an electric car in 1913 (courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Acceptance of electric cars was initially hampered by a lack of power infrastructure, but by 1912, many homes were wired for electricity, enabling a surge in the popularity of the cars. At the turn of the century, 40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline. 33,842 electric cars were registered in the United States, and America became the country where electric cars had gained the most acceptance. Sales of electric cars peaked in 1912.

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