What was the First Electric Car?

I’m not a driver, but I’m living in a city whose history is linked to the automobile. And, let’s be honest, there are cars everywhere. But I hope they’ll make less noise in the future. The electric car seems to go this way at least.

I don’t know if you remember but, like 20 years ago, there was this story going around about the fact that a guy invented a car using water, not oil, and was killed in South America (Apparently, it was a hoax). I don’t know if there’s a bit of truth there, but it seems that the inventor of the electric car had a better chance… or does it? I don’t know who he is, but I’ll find out by trying to discover…

Who Invented the Electric Car?

Electric vehicles (or simply “EVs”) have recently experienced a surge in popularity, but their roots can be traced back to the 19th century. In fact, the journey to the first electric car began in the 1830s with Scottish inventors.

First, there was Robert Anderson who, between 1832 and 1839, constructed a motorized carriage powered by non-rechargeable batteries. Although more of a novelty than a practical mode of transportation, Anderson’s creation showcased the potential of electric power.

In 1837, another Scottish inventor named Robert Davidson built a prototype electric locomotive, and by 1841, he had developed an improved version capable of towing six tons over 1.5 miles at a speed of 4 mph. However, the need for frequent battery replacements hindered its widespread adoption, and the locomotive was destroyed by railway workers who perceived it as a threat to their employment.

The Advent of Rechargeable Batteries and the First Electric Car(riage)

In 1859, the invention of the rechargeable lead-acid battery by French physicist Gaston Planté (an invention that also had an impact on the development of the wind turbines!) made electric vehicles more viable by providing a means to store and reuse electricity efficiently.

And so, around 1884, English inventor Thomas Parker played a significant role in the deployment of electric-powered trams and the development of prototype electric cars. By 1890, Scottish-born chemist William Morrison, residing in Des Moines, Iowa, had built an electric carriage that garnered attention at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. With front-wheel drive, 4 horsepower, and a reported top speed of 20 mph, Morrison’s electric carriage captured the imagination of inventors and set the stage for future developments.

Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris built the First Electric Car!

Electrobat or the First Electric Car on the Street!

In 1894, Philadelphians Pedro Salom and Henry G. Morris obtained a patent for their adaptation of battery-electric technology from streetcars and boats, leading to the birth of the first commercially viable EV effort called the “Electrobat.” Initially heavy and slow, the Electrobat underwent significant improvements, including the use of pneumatic tires and lighter materials. By 1896, Electrobat carriages employed two 1.1-kW motors, enabling a range of 25 miles at a top speed of 20 mph.

Electrobat vehicles, along with another electric car by Riker, even outperformed gasoline-powered Duryea automobiles in a series of five-mile sprint races in 1896, solidifying the potential of electric propulsion.

The Electric Vehicle Company and the Rise and Fall of Electric Taxis

Capitalizing on the success of their electric cars (I mean, electric carriages), Morris and Salom sold their idea of electric Hansom cabs to Isaac L. Rice, who established the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC, for short) in New Jersey in 1896. EVC attracted significant investments and partners, leading to the operation of more than 600 electric cabs in New York by the early 1900s, with smaller fleets in other eastern cities.

To address the issue of recharging downtime, an ice arena in New York was converted into a battery-swapping station. This innovation allowed cabs to quickly replace depleted batteries with fully charged ones, ensuring minimal interruptions to their operations. However, due to conflicts among investors and partners, the taxi venture ultimately collapsed in 1907, marking the end of a promising era for electric taxis.

An Ad for Studebaker Automobile Co. (1907)
An Ad for Studebaker Automobile Co. (1907)

Legacy and the Transition to Gasoline Vehicles

Exide, the battery supplier to EVC, continued producing batteries for various applications, including electric vehicles. Although electric cars continued to be popular, their dominance was challenged by the rise of gasoline-powered vehicles. Henry Ford‘s introduction of the Model T in 1908, coupled with the invention of the electric starter by Charles Kettering in 1912, catapulted gasoline cars to the forefront of the automotive industry. Gasoline cars became more affordable, accessible, and convenient, with a rapidly expanding network of roads and the availability of cheap gasoline.

The declining demand for electric vehicles, coupled with technological limitations such as limited driving range and the need for frequent recharging, contributed to their gradual disappearance from the market by the mid-1930s.

The Modern Resurgence of Electric Vehicles

Times are changing and the electric car has now found a place as the car of the future. Advances in battery technology, driven by research and development efforts, have significantly improved the energy density, range, and charging capabilities of electric car batteries. This progress, combined with increasing environmental concerns and a desire for sustainable transportation options, has reignited interest in EVs, as you may have noticed.

If you want to learn a bit more about the history of Electricity, I already took a quick look by researching Who discovered electricity? and Who Invented Solar Panels?, also if you don’t want to get lost, I wrote about the invention of the GPS!

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