History of Electric Cars: Who Drove EVs in the Early 1900s?
Electric cars and hybrids generated a lot of buzz when they first appeared about 20 years ago. EVs have become such an overnight success that it might come as a surprise to learn that, far from being a 21st-century innovation, the history of electric cars goes much farther back. In fact, the first electric cars even predate the internal combustion engine-powered car.
For a short time around the turn of the 20th century, electric cars were actually more popular than gas-powered cars. So you might be wondering how, if EVs have been around for so long, it’s taken until now for them to become more popular.
The History of Electric Cars: A Timeline
Dive into the fascinating story of EVs below to find out about the electric vehicles of yesteryear and how they led us to today’s efficient new era.
The Invention of EVs
The history of EVs begins in 1828, the year after the death of Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery. At the time, scientists were only just beginning to understand the full potential of electric power, and countless amateur and professional inventors set to work, seeing what new electrical devices they could come up with.
Ányos Jedlik was one of them. A Hungarian inventor and priest, Jedlik developed what he called a “lightning-magnetic self-rotor” — the world’s first electric motor. To test it, Jedlik mounted his tiny motor on a model locomotive, thereby creating the first electric vehicle.
Jedlik wasn’t the only one to catch on to the potential of electric locomotion. Beginning in 1832, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson spent nearly a decade developing an electric carriage. Around the same time, his countryman Robert Davidson, a chemist and dyer, built the first electric locomotive, which had a top speed of 4 mph, making it too slow to be practical for railroads.
The major obstacle for these early attempts, aside from low speeds, was battery technology. It wasn’t until 1859 that rechargeable lead–acid batteries were invented by French physician Gaston Planté. This major breakthrough made electric vehicles a much more practical possibility, and inventors set to work once again.
Early Practical Electric Vehicles
The 1880s saw the invention of the first practical (i.e., rechargeable) full-scale electric vehicles. In 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé mounted an electric motor on an English tricycle, creating what was arguably the first EV as we now understand them.
A more notable success debuted in 1890 when William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, applied for a patent for a carriage he’d modified with a rechargeable 4-hp battery-powered motor. Morrison’s vehicle had a top speed of 20 mph and could carry up to six people, and it kickstarted a wave of new electric vehicle design, with each new vehicle more powerful and versatile than the last.
By the 1890s, electricity was being used to power everything from outboard motors to streetcars. In Philadelphia, Pedro G. Salom and Henry G. Morris applied electric streetcar technology to a 1,600-lb. chassis to create the Electrobat, the first commercially viable EV, in 1894. Soon, other companies were founded to produce their own EVs, many of which were slow and expensive by today’s standards, but an impressive technological leap forward.
When Did Electric Cars Become Popular?
The 1890s marked the beginning of the shift away from horses and horse-drawn carriages as the most popular and practical modes of (local) transportation. By 1900, you could choose from three types of propulsion if you were in the market for a car: steam, gasoline, or electric.
Of these, steam was the least practical since it required large amounts of fuel and could only carry cars short distances. The petroleum industry hadn’t yet reached the size and importance that would make it so significant throughout the 20th century. That left electricity, which was then so much more practical and accessible that in 1900, 38% of all cars on American roads were electric.
There are a few reasons behind this period of popularity. For one, electric cars were relatively quiet, easy to drive, cleaner, and easier to start quickly than either steam- or gas-powered cars. (Difficult-to-use and occasionally dangerous hand cranks would continue to be used to start engines throughout the early 20th century.) This made them perfect for short journeys, and the widespread availability of sufficiently powerful batteries did the rest.
To the Present Day
Early EVs dropped off the map around the time two events took place. First, throughout the late 19th century, numerous engineers and inventors made improvements to the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, and deposits of crude oil were found all over the United States. An abundant source of cheap energy led to gas-powered cars steadily overtaking the then-dominant electric vehicles.
Second, petroleum-burning cars themselves became more attainable with the release of the Ford Model T in 1908. The Model T sold for $850 (less than $30,000 adjusted for inflation), placing it within most Americans’ budgets, and the expanding and improving national road network made them the most affordable, reliable way to travel independently.
The Future of EVs
By 1935, electric cars had all but vanished from the roads, but they weren’t completely extinct. Oil shortages and embargoes in the 1970s renewed interest in more sustainable power sources, and growing environmental concern in the late 1990s spurred designers and engineers to revive the concept.
Fast forward to today, and EVs still only make up about 1% of cars in use throughout the United States — a far cry from the position they held over a century ago. But they’re steadily gaining ground: experts estimate that, by 2050, electric cars could make up 70% of the cars, SUVs, and light trucks in use nationwide, a triumphant return to the spotlight for sustainable transportation.
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