The Invention and Evolution of the First Electric Cars

Why They Caught On, Why They Disappeared

The Electrobat Taxis

New-York tribune / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

When you hear the phrase “first electric cars,” you might think of a Tesla or a Nissan Leaf. But the first electric cars in the United States were built before 1900, lived on for another three decades, then ceased production in the 1920s. For electric vehicles to succeed today, it's important to consider why they caught on more than a century ago, and why they disappeared.

Early History

While battery-powered carriages were invented in 1830s, it took decades for a rechargeable electric battery to be mounted on a horseless carriage. In the early 1890s, the technology had reached a level of sophistication that individual inventors were building electric vehicles that were safer and cleaner than coal- or oil-fired steam-engine vehicles (which tended to explode), required less space on the roads than horse-drawn carriages, and left behind no manure.

The Electrobat, one of the first electric automobiles in the U.S.
The Electrobat, one of the first electric automobiles in the U.S.

mikroman6 / Getty Images

America's first gasoline car, the Duryea Machine, was introduced at nearly the same time (1893), but electric vehicles were often judged to be a superior technology. Electric vehicles turned on instantly; gasoline cars required cranking. Electrics were easy to operate, with no need to shift gears; gasoline cars rumbled, stalled, backfired, and broke down more easily.

In an 1895 “motocycle” race, the Electrobat was awarded a gold medal for its “safety, ease of control, absence of noise, vibration, heat, and odor, cleanliness and general excellence of designs and workmanship”—even though a Duryea Machine won the race.

Public Reception

Electric vehicles were the first cars to give people a sense of personal autonomy, especially women, who could own and drive a car decades before they could vote.

Electric vehicles were “a symbol and vehicle of female emancipation,” the original freedom machines, and car manufacturers promoted vehicles like the Detroit Electric (pictured at the top of the page) “to the well-bred woman” as a car where “she can preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact.” Coiffure intact or not, suffragists drove electric vehicles to their rallies.

The Expanding Industry

As the EV market grew, manufacturing companies took the place of individual inventors. Among the first were the Riker Electric Motor Company, formed in 1889, and the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company, which introduced a series of electric taxis (pictured below) in New York City in 1896.

Old engraved illustration of electric cab, Electric Carriage & Wagon Company
The Electric Carriage & Wagon Company's taxi.

mikroman6 / Getty Images

By the end of the century, dozens of well-funded companies had been founded. Electric vehicles could even be purchased from Montgomery Ward catalogs. Companies were producing delivery wagons, taxis, phaetons, broughams, stanhopes, one-, two-, and four-seaters with ranges from 35 to 88 miles and speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. (The world record for any vehicle in 1898 was 39 mph.)

Why Electric Vehicles Disappeared

By 1900, the electric vehicle industry was consolidating and growing as it improved the efficiency, power, and range of its vehicles. For some 20 years, the triumph of the gasoline car was by no means inevitable.

Still, challenges lay ahead, similar to those that have slowed the adoption of electric vehicles in the United States today. Here are some of the major roadblocks.

An Inadequate Charging Network

Electric vehicles were limited to places that had electricity: cities. Thomas Edison opened the first electric power plant in 1880's, but by 1932, only 10% of rural America was electrified—rural electrification efforts would not come until later in the 1930s. Electrification was a patchwork of competing systems, voltages, and frequencies, with direct current (DC) in cities and alternating current (AC) in the countryside (where it existed). It was developed by private companies, with little federal planning or oversight until the New Deal.

Associations With Gender

Advertising helped create a culture of gasoline cars. Car manufacturers “devised a kind of 'separate spheres' ideology about automobiles: gas cars were for men, electric cars were for women.”

Women were able to cross gender boundaries and adopt “men's cars,” like racer Dorothy Levitt, who drove a gas-powered De Dion at speeds up to 91 mph. But for men, driving an electric vehicle was a sign of weakness. The Argo company might have advertised its 1912 electric vehicle as “a woman's car that any man is proud to drive,” but most men did not want to drive “a woman's car," and the slow-to-die association of electric vehicles with weakness set in.

A Model T, circa 1919
With gas cars, men took the wheel, and the "female driver" increasingly became a stereotype.

Three Lions / Getty Images

Gas Car Competition

Henry Ford's Model T of 1908 may have cost a third less than an electric car, but people still needed to easily fuel it. John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company gave gas cars a “practically unlimited area of operation, as the gasoline with which it is operated may be bought at any country drug store,” as the New York Times opined in 1900.

Once the gas car became more affordable, the electric vehicle was doomed. The nail in the coffin came when gasoline cars adopted the electric ignition in 1912, which made starting the vehicle easy. By the late-1920s, electric vehicle manufacturing was a dead industry.

What EVs Need Today

The first electric cars faced similar obstacles that EVs face today: a lack of support from government, a fueling network unable to compete with gas vehicles, and a stigma of weakness. The obstacles were less technological than they were political, economic, and cultural.

View Article Sources
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