A Brief History and Evolution of Electric Cars

The history of the electric car is much longer than you might think. In this article, we take a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of the EV.

A Brief History and Evolution of Electric Cars
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To understand the history of the electric car it's useful to put it into context with the development of personal vehicles in general. 

As the 20th Century loomed the predominant form of transport was still the horse. But as the fruits of the industrial revolution increased people's incomes and available technologies some were beginning to experiment with newer forms of transport.

Automotive

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At this point petrol, steam and electrical versions were available and each competed with the other for dominance in the market. 

Steam technology was well established at this time and was generally understood and trusted by the public. It had, after all, proved its worth powering factories, mines, trains and ships - it seemed only a natural progression to build smaller forms of transport using steam engines.

Some self-propelled vehicles did exist from the late 1700's (notably Nicholas Joseph Cugnot's steam tricycle) but this technology wasn't really developed in this role until the late 1800's. Cugnot's Dampfwagen is widely accepted to be the world's the first automobile. 

The history of EV first car
Cugnots Dampfwagen, circa 1769. Source: F. A. Brockhaus/Wikimedia Commons

But there was a problem - steam engines needed a long startup time often approaching an hour from cold. They also had a limited range and needed to be constantly fed with water. 

When was the first car made, who invented the car?

This is not as easy a question to answer as you might think. It really depends on what you mean by car or automobile. 

Throughout history, there have been various examples of 'the first car' and thus inventors. Here are some of the more notable ones. 

As we've previously seen Nicholas Joseph Cugnot developed an early steam-powered automobile as early as 1769. His Dampfwagen was actually a form of an early tractor that was used to haul artillery and is considered the first automobile. 

But since a car is defined as:-

"A road vehicle, typically with four wheels, powered by an internal combustion engine and able to carry a small number of people." - Oxford English Dictionary.

This isn't really the case.

However, by 1807-8 François Isaac de Rivaz had developed an early internal combustion engine that was actually fueled using hydrogen. His engine powered a 'rickety' four-wheel contraption that held the hydrogen fuel in a balloon and ignited it using a Volta starter.

But would you count this as the first car? 

The first widely accepted internal combustion engine (powered using gasoline) was developed by Siegfried Marcus in 1870

Siegfried further developed his invention to create the first two-cycle, and later a four-cycle, engines in around 1880. These engines also incorporated carburetor's, magneto ignition and later models of his car also featured steering, a clutch, and brake.  

history of electric cars Marcus Car first
Source: Günter Rott/Wikimedia Commons

If you consider his car to be a 'true' car then Siegfried is your man.

But automobile and car innovation were about to be kicked into top gear. 

Otto, Diesel, Benz and Ford get in on the act

The four-stroke engine, still prevalent today, was developed by Nikolaus Otto in 1862 and the diesel engine was developed by Rudolf Diesel in 1893.

A little later Karl Benz developed his revolutionary 'world's first production vehicle' in 1886 and The Ford Model T was 'mass produced' automobile in the early 1900's. 

Despite the power and utility internal combustion engines provided at the time, especially compared to steam and horse-powered alternatives, they weren't without their problems.

They were less than easy to drive, needing significant effort to change gears and start the engine in the first place. These vehicles were also very loud and the exhaust fumes were less than pleasant. 

But there was a third (well fourth if you include animals) option - electric cars. These lacked many of the issues that other alternatives had. They were, like today, quiet, relatively easy to operate and had no emissions of any kind. 

The history of EV Siegfried Marus
Siegfried Marcus developed the first gasoline-powered vehicle Source: Archiv Rott/Wikimedia Commons

Early electric cars were an ideal alternative to combustion and steam engines

Early electric cars found a lucrative market for driving around cities. Some of their main consumers included women who found they were perfect for shorts trips around the city.

One of the first practical electrical cars was invented by British inventor Thomas Parker in around 1884. Another famous example of early electric cars was The Flocken Elektrowagen, was produced in Germany in 1888.

Sadly poor roads outside of urban centers made it difficult for early electric (and steam/gasoline) cars to venture far beyond the city limits. As electrification rolled out in the 1910's charging these early electric cars became considerably easier and greatly boosted their public appeal.

Car manufacturers at the time began to take notice and started experimenting with electrical and early hybrid cars. One notable example was Porsche founder, Ferdinand Porsche, who developed his famous P1 in 1898 (this was also his first ever car).

Thomas Edison also threw his weight behind early electric cars believing in their superiority to other alternatives and worked to develop better performance batteries. Henry Ford (who happened to be a close friend of Edison) partnered with him to explore options for low-cost electrical cars around 1914.

Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, Ford's development of the Model T, specifically his mass production process, would sound the death knell for early electric cars of the time. A Model T in 1912 cost around $650 a piece - an electric alternative cost almost three times that at around $1,750

Other developments in gasoline engines, like the Charles Kettering's electrical starter (though H. J. Dowsing patented an earlier example in 1896), removed one of the main irritations of combustion engines at the time - the hand crank. Electric Vehicles received their coup de grace when road systems were improved and abundant reserves of crude oil began to be discovered. 

These, and other factors, all contributed to the fall of electric cars of the period with them all but disappearing by around 1935. The battle seemed won, for the next 30 years combustion engine vehicles would rule supreme.

That was until the Oil Crisis of the 1970's

A Brief History and Evolution of Electric Cars
 Flocken Elektrowagen built 1888. Source: Henrysirhenry/Wikimedia Commons

Who made the first electric car?

Like combustion engine cars there was no single inventor of electric cars. Their emergence and development should be considered more of a series of discoveries and inventions that would ultimately 'coalesce' into what we recognize today as the electric car.

The discovery of electricity aside, the first prerequisite needed to develop electric cars was a reliable rechargeable battery.

Anyos Jedlik, a Hungarian inventor, developed an early electrical motor in 1828. Using his new invention he also developed an early 'proof of concept' for using electricity as a means of transportation by building a small model car that could be moved using his motor.

A little later, in 1834, a Vermont Blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, built another small model electric vehicle that was able to run on a small, circular, electrical track. 

As impressive as these were they lacked self-contained rechargeable power sources and, therefore, had limited utility as a mode of transport if upscaled.

The world would need to wait until 1859 when French Physicist Guston Plante developed his lead-acid battery. 

The technology was further improved by another Frenchman, Camille Alphonse Faure, who significantly increased the capacity of the battery in 1881. This development enabled the production of batteries on an industrial scale.

history of electric vehicles lead battery
Modern Lead Acid rechargeable battery. Source: Bisapien/Wikimedia Commons

With a reliable and rechargeable power source in hand, other inventors could begin to experiment with electricity and locomotion.

When were electric cars invented?

As we've seen exactly when the electric car was invented is more of a series of events than a specific date. That being said after the early developments above there are some contenders for the 'first' electric cars below, depending on your idea of what constitutes a fully formed one.

An interesting early development of electric cars was made in 1834 by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands (and his assistant Christopher Becker) who both created a small-scale electrical car, powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.

Sadly, Stratingh was unable to develop his 'car' further as he died shortly after in 1841.

A little later in 1867, an Austrian inventor Franz Kravogl displayed his electric car prototype at the World Exposition in Paris. This was an electrically-powered two-wheeled cycle that was not very reliable to drive on the street.

In 1881, Gustave Trouve tested a three-wheeler automobile along the streets of Paris. This followed his development of the world's first outboard engine from which he used the motor as the drive mechanism of his tested Coventry-Rotary pedal tricycle.

Although not a car it was a key invention on the road to a full e-car.

But it wasn't until 1884 that a British Inventor, Thomas Parker (who also electrified the London Underground) built the first production electric car. Parker powered his car using his own specially designed rechargeable high-capacity batteries. 

The first successful electric automobile, The Electrobat, was developed by Mechanical Engineer Henry G. Morris and Chemist Pedro G. Salom in 1894 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was a slow and heavy contraption with steel tires to resist the weight of its heavy frame and large lead battery. 

Across the pond, in the U.S., William Morrison of Des Moines in Iowa developed a six-passenger electric car (wagon) that was capable of reaching 23 km/h. In 1895, consumers began to take notice of this 'new-fangled technology' following A. L. Ryker's introduction of all-electric tricycles in the U.S. 

history of electric cars Parker early EV car
Thomas Parker's early EV, circa 1895. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Various other inventors and engineers developed a series of other models throughout this period that climaxed in an electric car making the first ever speed record on the 18th December 1898

After these further developments in electric car technology flourished, it was a literal 'golden age' for the technology. As a result, interest in electric cars was rising throughout the later 1890's and early 20th Century.

Electric battery-powered taxis started to become available around the time - notably Walter C. Bersey's fleet of cabs in London that was introduced in 1897.

Despite their advantages over gasoline cars of the time, a lack of electrical infrastructure at the time did hold back their mass-adoption by consumers. This would mark the decline of electric cars at the time with them being completely eclipsed by combustion engine cars when large deposits of petroleum were discovered worldwide.

By 1910, most electric car manufacturers had either gone out of business or stopped production completely. The technology persisted for specialist uses like forklift trucks, milk floats in the UK, golf carts and some niche vehicles like the Henney Kilowatt but it generally stayed on the sidelines until its renaissance later in the 20th Century.

History of electrical cars Henny Kilowatt
1961 Henney Kilowatt. Source: DRoberson/Wikimedia Commons

GM's first electric car

Although GM did experiment with electric vehicles as early as the mid-1960's their first concept, the Electrovair never made it to mass-production. It was based on the 1966 Corvair and was powered using a silver-zinc battery pack that could deliver 532 volts.

Fast forward a few decades and General Motors decided to "give it try" once again (well not entirely voluntarily as you will see).

Their first modern-age electric car, the General Motors EV1, was developed in the mid-1990's. The EV1 was the first electric car to be mass-produced (and purpose-built) in the modern era by a major car manufacturer. 

This humble looking car also had a few others first to add to its already trophy rack.

- It was the first to be designed from the ground up to be an EV by GM. 

- The EV1 was also the first (and only) passenger car marketed under the GM brand and not one of its divisions

GM's decision to design and built the EV1 was inspired, in part, by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) who passed a mandate that required major U.S. manufacturers to develop zero-emission vehicles if they wished to continue marketing their goods in the state.

history of electric vehicles GM EV1
Source: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

When was the first Tesla car made?

Tesla Motors produced their very first electric car, the Roadster, in 2008. This vehicle was a revolution in the modern age of the electric vehicle and featured cutting-edge battery technology and electric powertrain.

The original Roadster is a battery electric vehicle (BEV) and was the first highway legal serial production all-electric car to ever use a lithium-ion battery as a power source. It is also the first all-electric car capable of traveling more than 320 kilometers per charge.

It can also reach an incredible top speed of 200 km/h.

Of course, in recent years it can now add a very unique epithet to its already impressive list - the first production car to ever be launched into space. 

Between its production years (2008-2012), over 2,450 Roadsters were sold in over 30 countries around the world.

History of the electric vehicle Tesla Roadster
Source: Mariordo/Wikimedia Commons

An abbreviated electric car history timeline

Here is a selection of events in the history of the electric car. This timeline is not exhaustive.

Period Year Description
'Pre-Electric Car Age' Prehistory-1700's Discovery of Electricity
1769 Nicholas Joseph Cugnot's Dampfwagen
1828 Anyos Jedlik builds a working motor and small toy EV
1834 Thomas Devenport builds another model car that is powered using batteries
1834 Professor Sibrandus Stratingh creates his own model car using non-rechargeable primary cells
1859 Guston Plante invents the Lead-Acid battery
1867 Franz Kravogl builds a working electrically powered bicycle
'Golden Age' 1881 Camille Alphonse Faure improves Plante's battery's capacity
1881 Gustave Trouve builds an electrically powered tricycle
1884 Thomas Parker's high-capacity rechargeable battery and electric car
1888 The Flocken Elektrowagen
1894 The Electrobat is invented
1895 William Morrison builds his 6-passenger electric car/wagon
1896 Electrical starter motor for gasoline engines makes them more practical and more convenient for consumers
1897 Electric taxis begin to appear
1898 The first ever speed record is set in an electric car
1898 Porsche's P1 is developed
1901 Porsche develops the first electric hybrid
1912 Model T Ford sparks the beginning of the end of 'Golden Age'
1910-1920's Large reservoirs of petroleum and crude oil push electric vehicles ends the Golden Age. Many makers stop building EV's.
'Dark Ages' 1920's - 1950's Little advancement is made between this period. Electrical vehicles are limited to specialist roles in industry. Outside of this most electric cars have all but disappeared by 1935. 
1950's - 1961 Henney Kilowatt
1959 AMC and Sonotone Corp. join forces to develop a "self-charging" battery powered car.
1965 Scottish Aviation Scamp
1966 GM Electrovair
1966 Enfield 8000
1969 Rambler American Station Wagon
'Renaissance' 1970 Clean Air Act is passed
1971 NASA Lunar Rover
1972 First BMW electric car the 1602 E was unveiled but never produced
1973 Oil Crisis
1974-1982 Sebring-Vanguard Citicar
1976 U.S. Congress passed the "Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act"
1976 GM Electrovette
1985 Sinclair C5
1990 GM Impact Electric Concept Car
1990's Many governments around the world produce "Clean Air Acts" or amend existing ones and introduce Energy Policies. Major car manufacturers respond.
1996 GM EV1 produced but lost GM money
1997 The Toyota Prius is born
1999 Scientists work to improve EV's and their batteries
2004 Tesla Motors is founded
2008 Tesla Roadster
2009 -  In the U.S. and across the world charging station infrastructures begin to roll out
2010 GM releases the first Plug-in Hybrid the Chevy Bolt
2010-onwards EV battery costs plummet and various other major car brands beginning developing their own long-range, highway capable cars such as Nissan (Leaf), BMW, VW etc.

Who made the first hybrid car?

Easy, the Toyota Prius right? Sadly not. According to records, the first electric vehicle was actually developed much earlier.

In 1889, a gasoline-electric hybrid rail-car was devised by one William H. Patton

Although not a car by our definition, it's still a very interesting concept. The same chap also adapted his design for use in a boat propulsion system the same year.

A little later in 1901, whilst working at the Lohner Coach Factory, one Ferdinand Porsche developed his Mixte. This was a four-wheel-drive hybrid version of the "System Lohner-Porsche" electrical carriage that was displayed at the Paris World Fair of the same year. 

The Mixte is widely considered as the world's first hybrid automobile. The first prototypes of this vehicle were two-wheel drive, were powered using batteries and had two front-wheel hub-mounted motors. 

Some also attribute the honor of 'first hybrid' to an automobile developed in 1905. Henri Piper, a German-Belgian Inventor, produced his own hybrid vehicle that consisted of an electric motor and generator, batteries and a small gasoline engine.

The electrical motor was used to charge the battery at cruise speed with both motors used for acceleration and traversing steep inclines. 

The history of electric cars first hybrid
The Lohner-Porsche Mixte, circa 1902. Source: ptyx/Wikimedia Commons

What's the difference between hybrid and plug-in cars?

There have been a few terms thrown around in this article, and sources, so it probably worth clearing up any misunderstanding.

- A hybrid (HEV) cannot be charged from the mains (or charge station) but does have a battery and electric drive. Main drive energy comes from liquid fuel (usually gasoline)

- A plug-in hybrid (PHEV) can be charged from an electrical source and can be driven using either its battery or liquid fuel

- All-electric vehicles (EV, AEV, battery-electric cars etc) gets all of its drive energy from its battery and must be recharged from an electric source

- Plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) is simply a catch-all term for any of the above that can be completely or partially recharged from an electric source (mains or charge station).

Electrical vehicles have had an interesting if challenging history. Whatever their future may have in store is going to be fascinating to see. 

In case you consider buying one yourself, they do have some clear advantages and disadvantages over conventional combustion engine cars.