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.
Christopher McFadden

To understand the history of the electric car, it's useful to put it into context with the development of personal vehicles in general. 

On the eve of the 20th Century, the predominant form of transport was still the horse. But as people's incomes increased and available technologies advanced, some were beginning to experiment with newer forms of transport.


At this point, gasoline, steam, and electrical power were all available, with each competing 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 1700s (notably Nicholas Joseph Cugnot's steam tricycle) but this technology wasn't really developed for this role until the late 1800s. Cugnot's steam-powered Dampfwagen is widely accepted to be the world's 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 warmup time, often approaching an hour. They also had a limited range and needed to be constantly fed with water. 


How do electric cars work?

Electric cars, or EVs for short, work through the use of an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, like gasoline-powered cars. In most cases, EVs make use of a large traction battery pack to power the motor. This battery pack is charged by being plugged into a specially designed charging station or outlet at the users' home.

As EVs run on electricity, they have no exhaust and do not contain parts like the fuel pump, fuel line, carburetor, and fuel tank, which are needed in gasoline-powered cars.

In general, electric vehicles consist of a series of basic components. These include, but are not limited to, the following: 

1. Battery (all-electric auxiliary)In most electric drive vehicles, the auxiliary battery provides electricity for start-up and to power vehicle accessories like the clock. This is not to be confused with the main traction battery pack.

2. Charge port: The stored energy in a battery cannot last forever and it needs to be recharged from time to time. This is where the charge port comes into play. It allows the EV to be connected to an external power supply.

history of evs components of an ev
Source: U.S. Department of Energy

3. DC/DC converter: Typically, the traction battery pack will have a higher voltage than many other components in the car. This device converts the higher-voltage DC into lower-voltage DC for safe use.

4. Electric traction motor: Since the electric vehicle is expected to actually move at some point, a means is needed to convert electricity into rotational force to move the wheels. This is where the traction motor comes in. Some vehicles also have energy regeneration functions at the wheels, too to recoup some of the lost energy.

5. Onboard charger: As electricity from external sources is typically AC, this device converts it into DC for use in charging the battery. It is also used to monitor battery characteristics such as voltage, current, temperature, and state of charge while charging the pack.

6. Power electronics controller: This device actively manages the flow of electrical energy delivered to the battery and controls the speed of the electric traction motor (not to mention the torque it generates). 

7. Thermal cooling systemThis system maintains the proper operating temperature range of the engine, electric motor, power electronics, and other components.

8. Traction battery pack: This is the "fuel tank" of the electric vehicle and is the source of all electricity used to run most of the other components in the vehicle.

9. Electrical transmission: This device transfers mechanical power from the traction motor in order to drive the EVs wheels. 


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 became the first 'mass-produced' automobile in the early 1900s. 

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

They were less than easy to drive, often 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 of other alternatives. They were quiet, relatively easy to operate, and had no noxious emissions of any kind. 

The history of EV Siegfried Marus
Siegfried Marcus developed the first gasoline-powered vehicle, Source: Smarter Than Car/Twitter

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

Early electric cars found a lucrative market, particularly for use in 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 created by British inventor Thomas Parker in around 1884. Another famous example of early electric cars was The Flocken Elektrowagen, which 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 1910s, 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's 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 over other alternatives, and he worked to develop better-performing batteries. Henry Ford (who happened to be a close friend of Edison) partnered with him in around 1914 to explore options for low-cost electrical cars.

ev history p1
Porsche P1, Source: Arnaud 25/Wikimedia Commons

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

Other developments in gasoline engines, like Charles Kettering's electrical starter (and H. J. Dowsing earlier example, in 1896), removed one of the main irritations of the early combustion engines - 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, and they had all but disappeared by around 1935. The battle seemed to be won, and or the next 30 years combustion engine vehicles would rule supreme.

That was until the Oil Crisis of the 1970s

A Brief History and Evolution of Electric Cars
Flocken Elektrowagen built 1888, SourceHenrysirhenry/Wikimedia Commons

Who made the first electric car?

Like combustion engine vehicles, 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 this new invention, he also developed an early 'proof of concept' for using electricity as a means of transportation, by building a model car that could be moved using his motor.

A little later, in 1834, Vermont Blacksmith, Thomas Davenport, built another 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, even if scaled up.

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

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

history of electric vehicles lead battery
Modern Lead Acid rechargeable battery, SourceBisapien/Wikimedia Commons

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

When were electric cars invented?

As we've seen, the creation of the electric car was more of a series of events than a specific event. 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 electric vehicle.

An interesting early development in electric cars was made in 1834 by Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, the Netherlands, (and his assistant Christopher Becker) who 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 afterward, in 1841.

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

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

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

But it wasn't until 1884 that 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 support the weight of its heavy frame and a large lead battery. 

Also in the U.S., William Morrison of Des Moines, 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, climaxing with an electric car setting a world speed record on December 18th, 1898

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

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

Despite their advantages over gasoline cars of the time, a lack of electrical infrastructure held back their mass-adoption by consumers. In fact, this would mark the decline of electric cars as they began to be eclipsed by combustion engine cars,  especially after large deposits of petroleum were discovered.

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 electric vehicles generally stayed on the sidelines until their 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-1960s, with their concept car, the Electrovair, this vehicle never made it to mass-production. The Electrovair 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 (although not entirely voluntarily, as you will see).

Their first modern-age electric car, the General Motors EV1, was developed in the mid-1990s. 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 other firsts to add.

- It was the first GM vehicle designed from the ground up as an EV. 

- 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), which 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 its 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 an electric powertrain.

The original Roadster was 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 could also reach an incredible top speed of 200 km/h.

And, it can now add a very unique epithet to its already impressive list - the first production car to ever be launched into space. In February 2018, it served as a dummy payload for the Falcon Heavy test flight. A mannequin dressed in a spacesuit, dubbed 'Starman', occupied the driver's seat

Between its production years (2008-2012), more than 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 to end the Golden Age. Many makers stop building EV's.
'Dark Ages' The 1920s-1950s Little advancement is made between this period. Electrical vehicles are limited to specialist roles in the 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.

Many governments around the world legislate to promote EVs and phase out combustion engines within the next few decades.

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, while 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 in the same year. 

The Mixte is widely considered to be the world's first hybrid automobile. The initial prototypes of this vehicle had 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, while both motors were 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 its sources, so it is probably worth clearing up any misunderstanding.

  • A hybrid (HEV) cannot be charged from domestic current (or charging station) but does have a battery and electric drive. The main drive energy comes from liquid fuel (usually gasoline).  The gasoline engine kicks in when the battery needs charging or when additional power is needed.
  • 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) get all of their drive energy from their batteries and must be recharged from an electricity 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 electricity source (either from household current or a charge station).

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

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