The Interesting History of Electric Cars

The current interest in new car brands like Tesla makes electric cars appear to be very much a product of our own century. But the truth is that electric cars have a much longer history, one that stretches back much further than the popularization of the gas-powered car we’ve become familiar with.
Ariella  Brown
Detroit car ad from 1912 Public Domain picWikimedia Commons

As concern for the environmental impact of gas-powered cars has been rising and as government subsidies offer incentives for clean energy, we've seen increasing demand for electric vehicles, sometimes referred to as an EV, which rely on electric motors, and hybrid cars that combine electric power with the option to switch to gas-power as backup.


Though electric vehicles today are presented as innovaions, and they do tend to incorporate highly advanced technology, the fact is electric power for cars is not a new idea at all. Such cars date back well over a century.  Exactly how far over a century depends on where you start the timeline for electric vehicles.

If you're looking for a quick tour, you can also take a look at this The Interesting History of Electric Cars video;

Electric cars were invented in the 1800s

While there is some dispute at what exact point in history electric cars were born, we’ll take 1828 as our starting point. That’s the year in which the Hungarian engineer, physicist, and  Benedictine priest, Anyos István Jedlik made the first electric car in the form of a model.

Perhaps that is why many histories of electric cars skip the Hungarian contribution for not being full size.

Accordingly, many histories of electric cars take 1834 or 1835 (there is some dispute about the date) as the year in which electric cars were born. They give credit for the first electric car to goes to an American, Thomas Davenport.

It was either 1834 or 1835 when Davenport built a small locomotive powered by two electromagnets that ran on a track. While this did not become a prototype for cars, it did serve as a model for the electric streetcar that were put into use many years later in the century.  

A few other inventors dabbled with electric cars during that decade. They include the Scottish Robert Anderson of Scotland who “who may have designed an electric carriage sometime between the years of 1832 and 1839.”  

France also deserves some credit for the inventions and improvement of the battery used in cars. The French physicist Gaston Planté invented the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery in 1859.

Another Frenchman, the chemist Camille Faure, invented the basic lead-acid battery in 1881. In addition to powering cars, his battery was used to power the first submarine in 1886. It was also used to light up the city of Paris, which is the source for it being known as “the city of lights.”

Let’s now cross the channel to England in 1884. While that year and the name of the inventor Thomas Parker is omitted from some times, one article bears the title, “Thomas Parker Invented the First Electric Car in 1884.” Even while acknowledging he was not exactly first, the writer claims that Parker’s car “was the first electric vehicle that had the potential to be mass-produced and truly revolutionize how people traveled.”

Now we’ll go back to the United States for the next decade.  In the 1890s William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa built several different electric car models that you can see here. His first attempt was in 1887, and that didn’t go over so well. But he kept at it and did have success with his cars and batteries from 1890 onward.

Of course, when we think of harnessing electric power around that time period, the figure that springs to mind is Thomas Edison. Yes, he started working on batteries for cars in 1899. While he did succeed in making some improvements he gave it up when gas-power won over electricity. Below is a video of a 1912 Edison car.

When electric cars peaked

The peak of the electric car is considered to be about 1900. At that time electric cars made up about a third of all cars in America’s major cities.

Early 20th century electric cars
The picture is dated 1912 and shows at auto show, Toronto Armouries. On the left is a 1912 Tate Electric Bougham and on the right am 1893 Fetherstonaugh Electric, the first motor vehicle built in Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 The advantage of electric cars at the time was that they offered a quieter ride and were easier to operate. Their downside -- one that continued to keep electric cars from becoming mainstream for over a century -- is that the electric charge didn’t keep the car going long enough, and a recharge took a great deal of time.

On the other hand, gasoline-powered cars had the disadvantage of noisiness and a tendency to break down. They did, however, offer the advantage of starting relatively quickly and being able to go quite a ways before requiring more fuel. So why not have both?

The first hybrid car

The idea of the hybrid car is to have the best of both worlds: the electric power with the backup of a gas engine to keep it going when the charge runs out. That solution  dates back to 1901! See the video below:

 Ferdinand Porsche whose name is linked with the sports cars he launched, presented the Lohner-Porsche Mixte -- the world's first hybrid electric car. Though his design did not prove commercially viable at the time, it plays a very important role in engineering.

When it came time to design a Lunar Roving Vehicle for the space program, NASA and Boeing referred to some of the design aspects of the Lohner-Porsche. It also paved the way for our modern hybrid cars, as well as some train designs.  

Why electric cars got displaced by gas

By the 1920s electric cars stopped being commercially available due to three major developments.

One: Gas power became a lot more accessible as a result of oil fields being discovered in Texas in 1901. As explained in The Story behind the Horseless Carriage, “These rich deposits of petroleum made gasoline readily available and many country stores soon had an abundant supply of the economical fuel.”

Two: Henry Ford dominated the car industry with his mass-production that put out gas-powered cars, beginning with the Model T in 1908.

Three:  In 1912 the American inventor Charles F. Kettering invented at practical electric automobile starter, which made gas-powered cars even more attractive because they no longer needed to be started by a hand crank.

With the problem of difficult operation eliminated and ready supply of gas for cars that were now being mass-produced, electric cars were no longer in demand.By 1935, they have all but disappeared.

The slow comeback of electric cars in the late 20th century

For over 60 years, cars continued to advance. While gas was plentiful and inexpensive, people were content with their internal combustion engines. But by the late 1960s there was a change.

Gas prices started to climb steeply, and also there was the beginning of concern over air pollution. Congress introduced the first bills promoting electric vehicles to reduce air pollution in 1966.  

The Environmental Protection Association introduces a  Federal Clean Car Incentive Program in 1970. That galvanized the scientist Victor Wouk  (brother of the writer Herman Wouk who just passed away on May 17, 2019) to build the first full-powered, full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark two years later.

A number of different carmakers experimented with electric car designs during the 1970s. Among them is the very distinctive-looking Vanguard-Sebring's CitiCar that debuted in 1974. You can see it in the video below:

The CitiCar met with some success for a few years, but likely the fact that it could go no fast than 30 MPH and only cover a distance of 40 miles made it not a viable choice for people whose trips would include highways.

Spurred on by the rise of government regulations, over the next few decades American auto manufacturers continued to try to integrate electric power into their models. But the real revolution in hybrid cars came not out of the US but out of Japan.

In 1997 Toyota introduced the Prius,  the first mass-produced hybrid car.  It was a hit from the stars with close to 18,000 units sold the first year. Here’s a video that shows the evolution of the Prius from that first year’s model through the 2019 model:

In the 21st century, electric cars gain more traction

While the Prius model remain a popular choice, other manufacturers entered the arena, most notably Tesla.

In 2006 unveiled the Tesla Roadster made an appearance at the San Francisco International Auto Show in November. As you can see in the video below, Elon Musk, presented the car as a way to address the problem global warming. 

But lately, some have questioned the assumption that electric cars are really better for the environment in light of the most recent studies. See A Tesla Model 3 Produces More CO2 than a Diesel Car, Says New Study.

Nevertheless, the electric car was making inroads, both in terms of government support in making charging stations a priority and in terms of automakers taking Tesla’s big splash as an incentive to develop their own electric models.

In 2010 GM releases the Chevy Volt, which marked a first for plug-in hybrids. The technology used in its batter was developed by the Energy Department. In the words of the review in the video below, it was “pretty much software on wheels.”

The Energy Department also supported Nissan with a loan. That’s why it began assembling its LEAF, an all-electric, zero tailpipe emissions car in Tennessee in 2013.  

More importantly, for the electric car market as a whole, the Energy Department invested in the batteries used for such cars, which reduced the price by half over the earlier part of this decade. By 2014 there were 23 plug-in  and 36 hybrid car models on the market.

That number has grown with contributions from automakers around the world, as auto shows with new models billed as competition for Tesla come out every year. You can follow developments in model design and batteries on sites like GreenCarReports.  

What about the future? You can catch glimpse of that here: Kia Motors Unveils New All-Electric Concept Car. 

As for the larger question of will electric power be the future of cars,  the video below sets out to offer an answer:

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