|The electric car prototype made by |
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison
in the 1800's
A blacksmith in Vermont — Thomas Davenport — built the first rotary electric motor in 1833
and it to power a model train the next year. In the late 1830s, Scottish inventor Robert Davidson rigged a carriage with an electric motor powered by batteries. In his Pulitzer-nominated book Taking Charge, archaeology professor and technology historian Michael Brian Schiffer writes that this "was perhaps the first electric car."
After this truly remarkable achievement, the idea of an electric car
languished for decades. In 1881, a French experimenter debuted a personal
vehicle that ran on electricity, a tricycle (ie, three wheels and a seat) for
adults. In 1888, many inventors in Europe started creating three- and four-wheel
electric vehicles able to carry two to six people. These “EV’s” remained
principally curiosities until May 1897, when the Pope Manufacturing Company — the country's most successful bicycle
manufacturer — started selling the first commercial electric car: the Columbia Electric Phaeton, Mark III. It topped out at fifteen
miles per hour, and had to be recharged every 30 miles. Within two years,
people could choose from an array of electrical carriages, buggies, wagons,
trucks, bicycles, tricycles, even buses and ambulances made by numerous manufacturers.
|1904 Kreiger-Brasier electric car|
|1925 Rauch and Lang Electric Taxi|
New York City became home to a fleet of electric taxi cabs starting in 1897. The Electric Vehicle Company eventually had over 100 of them ferrying people around the Big Apple. Soon it was unleashing electric taxis in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington DC. By 1900 though, the company was in trouble, and seven years later it sputtered out.
As for cars powered by dead dinosaurs, Austrian engineer Siegfried Marcus attached a one cylinder motor to a cart in 1864, driving it 500 feet and thus creating the first vehicle powered by gas (this was around 25 years after Davidson had created the first electric car). It wasn't until 1895 that gas autos — converted carriages with a two-cylinder engine — were commercially sold (and then only in microscopic numbers).
Around the turn of the century, the average car buyer had a big choice to make: gas, electric, or steam... When the car industry took form around 1895, nobody knew which type of vehicle was going to become the standard. During the last few years of the nineteenth century and the first few of the twentieth, more than 100 companies placed their bets on electric car production. According to Schiffer, "28% of the 4192 American cars produced in 1900 were electric. In the New York automobile show of that year more electric cars were on display than gasoline or steam vehicles."
|electric car from 1900 designed |
by founder Ferdinand Porsche
In the middle of the first decade of the 1900’s, electric cars were got on the decline, and their gas drinking brothers were surging ahead. With improvements in the cars and their batteries, though, electric cars staged a comeback in 1907, continuing until 1913. The downhill slide started the next year, and by the 1920s the market for electrics was not more than minuscule,.
For the electric car things never got any better after that. Many companies tried to combine the best of both approaches, with cars that ran on a mix of electricity and gas. The Pope Manufacturing Company, once again in the vanguard, built a working prototype in 1898. A Dutch company and a French company each brought out commercial models the next year, beating the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight to the market by over a century. Even Ferdinand Porsche and the Mercedes Company got in on the electric car business. Unfortunately, these hybrids never really caught on.
|Electric car Oldsmobile from 1896|
Didik Design, which manufactures several vehicles running on various combinations of electricity, solar power, and human power, maintains an extensive archive on the history of electric and electro-fuel cars. According to their research, around 200 companies and individuals have manufactured electric cars. Only a few familiar names are on the list (although some of them aren't familiar as car manufacturers): Studebaker (1952-1966), General Electric (1901-1904), Braun (1977), Sears, Roebuck, and Company (1978), and Oldsmobile (1896 to the present). The vast majority have long been forgotten: Elecctra, Pfluger, Buffalo Automobile Company, Hercules, Red Bug, and Nu-Klea Starlite, to name a few. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison teamed up on an electric car, and although a few working prototypes were built, they were never commercially produced. Though they have faded from mass cultural memory, electric cars have never been completely out of production.
The reasons why electric cars faded into obscurity while gas cars and trucks became 99.999 percent dominant are complex and are still being debated. If only they hadn't been sidelined and had continued to develop apace, the world would be a very different, even more advabced place.