Electric cars were popular in the early 1900s, but they didn’t catch on. Will they succeed now?
EElectric cars are all the rage right now. They are being aggressively promoted in virtually every industrialized country in the world. But the electric car is far from a new idea; in fact, it is well over 100 years old. The electric car was so popular in the United States in the early 20th century that it accounted for about one-third of all vehicles on the road by 1900. Sales of electric cars continued to be strong for the next ten years. During World War I, buying an electric car was considered patriotic, as it saved valuable gasoline for the war effort. Why, then, have electric cars disappeared? This is the story of an automotive revolution combined with the rise of oil companies.
To put the first electric cars into perspective, it is important to understand both the transportation and the availability of electricity between 1850 and the turn of the century. Horse-drawn carriages were used even with the advent of three types of ancient automobiles – steam, gasoline and electric. Steam cars were impractical as they required a constant supply of water and took a long time to start. Early gasoline-powered cars were noisy, spit putrid fumes, and had to be crank. The electric car seemed to have potential, but the battery technology was not advanced. At the same time, electricity was just arriving in urban areas in the early 1900s.
Electric cars made their debut in the 1830s when Robert Anderson of Scotland developed a motorized car, but the vehicle was impractical because its battery could not be recharged. When rechargeable batteries became available in 1859, inventors on both sides of the Atlantic built prototype electric cars. Around 1890, William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa launched a six-passenger electric wagon that reached a top speed of fourteen miles per hour. It was prehistoric as far as electric cars were concerned, but it started a trend.
Road conditions outside of urban areas were poor, so travel by automobile was generally restricted to cities in the early 1900s. This was when manufacturers started making electric cars. Electric cars could travel short distances, they were quiet and clean, and women liked them because they were easy to drive. In the United States, Thomas Edison began developing a better battery for electric vehicles, even partnering with Henry Ford for a short time. In Germany, Ferdinand Porsche designed the first electric/petrol car around 1898 – the precursor to today’s hybrid.
Electric cars became so popular for commuting around town that New York, Boston and London had fleets of electric taxis by the early 1900s. By 1912, thirty-eight percent of automobiles on the road in the United States were cars electrical.
The electric car had a very promising start, but demand began to fall when Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. Ford’s automated manufacturing system allowed a Model T to be sold in 1912 for $650 when an electric car cost $1,750, almost three times that. so much. That same year, the electric starter for gasoline-powered automobiles was introduced. As a result, car engines no longer needed to be started by hand, which made the gasoline-powered car even more popular. Only 6,000 electric cars were sold in America in 1912 compared to 82,000 Ford Model Ts.
There were other important retarders for electric cars. The batteries had to be recharged frequently. Electricity was becoming more common in cities but not in rural areas, so charging an electric car in the countryside was impractical. The cost of the electric car, combined with the limited availability of electricity beyond urban areas, meant that the electric car was only feasible for wealthy city dwellers – and even then its appeal was limited.
Better roads linked cities in the 1920s and people wanted to drive further. By this time, Texas crude oil had been discovered and gasoline was plentiful and cheap. Oil companies have dominated the energy industry. It didn’t take long for gas-powered cars to rise to the top. Most electric car manufacturers are gone. One of the last, Detroit Electric, ended production of electric cars in 1939. The gasoline-powered automobile has since become the norm, despite sporadic attempts to reintroduce electric vehicles over the years.
Finally, in the 1990s, interest in reducing dependence on oil led to a revival of experimentation with electric cars. General Motors tried unsuccessfully to market a 2-seater electric vehicle called the EV1. A significant breakthrough came in Japan in 1997: Toyota introduced the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid electric car, marking the start of the hybrid market and a resurgence of mainstream interest in electric cars.
Today, climate change, air pollution, limited natural resources and ever-increasing energy consumption have combined to dramatically alter the perception of electric cars. Tesla is credited with opening up the contemporary electric car market with a focus on advanced technology. Other automakers are now churning out electric cars as fast as they can, and more are in the planning stages. Batteries are improving, the number of charging stations is increasing rapidly, prices are becoming more competitive and consumer demand is accelerating.
In the early 1900s, electric cars were all the rage. The same is true in 2022. History has a way of repeating itself and teaching us lessons, even if we don’t always learn them.