Electric vehicles have been around a lot longer than most people think. Certainly longer than Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors. In fact, electric cars appeared in the mid-1800’s, long before the internal-combustion engine was invented. Given all the time since, electric vehicles have only recently begun to challenge gas-powered engines. Most people don’t know that in 1900, at the turn of the 20th century, there were actually more electric vehicles on the road than gas powered cars! So what happened? Why did gasoline win out over electricity? For that matter, why did we become a world economy married to petroleum?
As far back as the 1830s, Scotland’s Robert Anderson, created an electrically motorized carriage. It traveled only 12 km/h with a very limited range. Rechargeable batteries were not yet invented so, when his crude battery ran dry, it had to be replaced. Not very practical, nevertheless, he presented it at an industrial conference in London in 1835 to great acclaim. Then in the 1859, French physicist Gaston Plante invented a huge breakthrough, the first rechargeable lead-acid battery.
Now inventors began to build some of the first practical electric cars. In 1890, William Morrison, a Scotland-born chemist living in Des Moines, Iowa, applied for a patent on his 6 passenger electric Surrey carriage. With 4 horsepower, and a top speed of 20 mph/32 kph, it had 24 battery cells that needed recharging every 50 miles. Morrison’s invention was a huge hit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exhibition and helped spark global interest in electric vehicles.
In 1900, at the start of the 20th century, the reliable horse was still the primary personal mode of transportation around the world. But as Europeans and Americans became more well-off, they looked to the newly invented motorcars. Many people began trading their horse-drawn carriages for motorized vehicles. As a result, the “automobile” rapidly grew in popularity – either steam, electric or gasoline versions.
At that time, roughly 40% were run by steam, 38% were electric, and 22% by gasoline.
Throughout the Industrial Revolution, coal-powered steam was the reliable energy source, powering trains, mills and factories. However, steam wasn’t very practical for personal vehicles. They required long warm-up times – sometimes up to 30 minutes – and needed to be refilled with coal and water often, limiting their range.
While Morrison was working on his electric carriage, Germans Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz were developing the world’s first gas-powered automobiles in 1886. However, the new internal combustion engine also had its drawbacks. They had to be started with a hand crank, were difficult to drive with changing gears, were quite loud (frightening people and horses), and had disagreeable exhaust fumes.
Electric cars didn’t have these issues. They were quiet, easy to drive, and smelled far better. Electric cars became popular with urban residents – especially women. They were perfect for shorter trips in cities, given poor dirt road conditions in the countryside. And thanks to Thomas Edison, more people were gaining access to electricity, making them easier to charge.
The first commercially successful electric car company was the Electrobat. Pedro Salom and Henry Morris adapted battery-electric street cars and got a patent for an electric automobile in 1894. It could travel 25 miles at a respectable top speed of 20 mph. Morris and Salom built electric Hansom cabs to compete with the horse-drawn carriages in New York City.
They sold the business to Isaac Rice, who started the Electric Vehicle Company in New Jersey. By the early 1900s, they had a fleet of over 600 electric cabs operating in New York, Boston and Baltimore. EVC’s battery supplier would grow to become Exide Batteries. Its manufacturing partner, Columbia, created an electric car for public sale long before gas-powered cars were mass-produced in Detroit.
Electric cars proved their grit in early motorsports as well.
Belgian Camille Jenatzy, a French electric car maker near Paris, engaged in several speed races (reaching 60 mph) in 1899 to promote his vehicle’s prowess. US President William McKinley was assassinated while visiting the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, in 1901. He was rushed to the hospital via an electric-powered ambulance. His successor, Teddy Roosevelt was the first President to take a public ride in a car, a Columbia electric in 1902. It could go 25 mph with a range of 80 miles.
Many famous automakers of the era had electric vehicles produced as well. Ferdinand Porsche developed an electric car called the P1 in 1898. Ransom Olds built electric horseless carriages before devising the first mass-market gas-powered Oldsmobile. Studebaker also entered the 20th century as an electric-car manufacturer.
Thomas Edison thought electric vehicles were the far superior tech and worked to build better batteries. Even Henry Ford, a close friend of Edison, agreed to partner on an electric car in 1914! They built one prototype before Ford decided that the gasoline engine had a more promising future. One factor was that Edison’s electricity was not yet widely available outside city centers, severely limiting the market. Drivers could carry a spare can of gasoline, but a heavy spare battery was not practical.
It was Henry Ford’s assembly-line, mass-produced Model T that dealt the greatest blow to electric cars. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gas-powered cars widely available and Affordable. By 1912, it cost only $650, while a comparative electric car sold for twice as much at $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter, eliminating the laborious hand crank.
Electric vehicles got a boost during World War I, when gas prices rose and fuel was in short supply due to rationing.
As an example, Detroit Electric built more than 35,000 electric delivery trucks between 1907 and 1929. Then with the discovery of large crude oil fields, first in Texas in 1901, and later in Persia in 1908, gas became cheaper and easier to get. Knowing gasoline was now more widely available than electricity, Ford built a transportation infrastructure based on gasoline, that would last to this day.
“Filling Stations” began popping up across countries. By comparison, very few Europeans and Americans had home electricity, outside of cities. In the end, electric vehicles all but disappeared from the market by the mid-1930’s, replaced by the likes of Ford, General Motors, Mercedes Benz, Daimler, and Rolls Royce. As a result, the electric vehicle sadly lay dormant for the better part of half of a century.
General Motors did experiment with electric cars. The 1964 Electrovair was based on the popular Corvair. Silver-zinc batteries gave it as much power as the Corvair’s six cylinder engine. Its top speed was 80 mph with a range up to 80 miles. However, the batteries could survive only 100 recharges and were cost prohibitive.
In 1965, political activist Ralph Nader testified before a U.S. Senate Committee, charging that General Electric could produce an electric car that would go 200 miles at up to 80 mph. He suggested GE was conspiring with the automotive and petroleum industries to hide this tech from the public. In 1967, GE produced the ugly Delta electric car, but it could go no faster than 55 mph for 40 miles, using nickel-iron batteries.
NASA contracted with Boeing & General Motors to produce an electric car for the Apollo moon missions.
Four Lunar Roving Vehicles, LRVs, were created for the last three missions, Apollo 15 , 16 and 17, from 1971 to 1972. The LRVs used non-rechargeable silver-zinc batteries and could go 8 mph top speed. On Apollo 17, the astronauts traveled about 22 miles around their lunar landing module. Even with the high profile Apollo LRV, engineers agreed that a battery revolution was needed to improve costs, speed, recharge time, capacity, and range.
In the early 1970s, oil prices and gas shortages spiked with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo imposed by OPEC – creating the infamous Energy Crisis. So an interest in electric appeared again as a way to lower dependence on foreign oil. Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976. It authorized the Department of Energy to support research and development by industry into electric and hybrid vehicles.
Jump forward again – to the 1990s. In the decades since the long gas lines of the 1970s, interest in electric vehicles had mostly died. Even though there wasn’t much public attention, scientists and engineers – supported by the Energy Department – continued to work hard to improve the batteries for electric cars.
The first turning point was the introduction of the Toyota Prius in Japan. Released in 2000, it became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle, where the gas-powered engine would charge the car’s electric batteries. It became an instant success and Car of the Year, making the Prius the best-selling hybrid ever.
Then two entrepreneurs, Martin Eberhard & Marc Tarpenning, incorporated Tesla Motors in 2003.
Named after the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla, and using new lithium-ion batteries, they pitched Silicon Valley venture capitalists on their bold idea. Lighter and faster, they could deliver zero-to-60-mph in 4 seconds. Pay-Pal’s Elon Musk poured his money into Tesla Motors, with the goal of producing a fast, luxury, electric sports car that could go more than 200 miles on a single charge. The rest, as the saying goes, is automotive history.
In the years since, as lithium ion batteries became cheaper, almost every automotive manufacturer has moved towards electric. By 2035, it’s expected that ALL the largest automotive markets may be electric. So from whichever metric you measure it, its undeniable—the electric car has finally arrived. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk is now the richest man on the planet, reinvesting his wealth in the likes of SpaceX.
And the growth is not slowing down. Governments, manufacturers, AND individuals are looking towards a more sustainable future for our grandchildren. Many are looking to electric vehicles as an integral way to combat the urgent Climate Crisis. As electric car prices continue to drop and gas prices rise, the demand will only continue to climb. Thomas Edison would finally be proud.