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The History Of The Electric Car By Alison Lakin, Associate Editor
Part I: 1830-1930
1913 Edison Electric Car
General Motors EV1
If you believe electric vehicles are a new technology, think again. Their widely unfamiliar history actually pre-dates that of gasoline-powered cars. In fact, it takes going back as far as 1830 – that’s no typo – to start uncovering their spotty past.
During that decade, a Scottish lad by the name of Robert Anderson assembled a crude first electric carriage powered by simple primary cells, and Thomas Davenport, an American, built the first electric motor. In the 20 years following Davenport’s death in 1851, people began to realize the magnitude of his invention and between then and 1880, his machine was used to power mass transportation vehicles like trains and trolleys.
It wasn’t until 1891 though that William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa created a successful electric automobile. His car had 4 horsepower and – similar to the restricted speed of EV city cars nowadays – a top speed of 20 mph. The battery’s charge only lasted about 50 miles.
Just a few years earlier, the EV’s arch nemesis, the internal combustion engine, was being developed by a few ingenious Germans named Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Their last names should sound pretty familiar to you. Daimler fit a gas engine within a stagecoach body to create the original four-wheeled vehicle, but Benz hit the historical jackpot and is generally recognized as the inventor of the first practical automobile in 1885.
However, the EV’s cleanliness and quietness compared to the gas engine’s dirty working parts made the EV the quick favorite. The first electric car heyday soon followed, leading to electric taxis hitting the streets of New York in 1897 and EVs making up 28 percent of cars on American roads by 1900. That first taxi service was started by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, using just a dozen electric cars. Feel free to curse their name when that cab’s horn jolts you awake at 4 am.
The same year taxis began roaming the streets, the Pope Manufacturing Company of Connecticut became the first large-scale electric car manufacturer in America. In 1900, Canadian Motors Limited produced the Motette, a small two-seater, for about three years; and around the same time, Henry and Clem Studebaker entered the electric car market with a light runabout before switching to internal combustion cars six years later.
Martin Eberhard, founder and former CEO of Tesla Motors and electric car history buff, says, “These early electric cars were primarily marketed toward women and professionals like doctors. No hand crank meant that you could drive them without getting dirty or exerting much effort. EVs were successful because they had a niche.”
So what happened? Why are we just now struggling to build EVs again? A few factors ...
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