Spring 2006

Driven to Fail?

The early history of the electric vehicle

One of the rare industries that electricity has failed to dominate is automobile production, but a review of the early story of the car suggests that this was by no means inevitable. The first crude examples of electric vehicles had been demonstrated as early as the 1830s by pioneers such as Scotsman Robert Davidson and American Thomas Davenport, and electric cars—by then refined by numerous other inventors in both the US and Europe—were increasingly available to consumers by the last decade of the nineteenth century. Touted as cleaner, quieter, more reliable, and easier to operate, electric cars enjoyed a popularity that easily rivaled their gas and steam counterparts; in 1900, of the 4,192 vehicles manufactured in the US, 1,575 were electric, 936 were gasoline-driven, and 1,681 were steam-powered. Electric cars also held the world land speed record from its official inception in 1898 until 1902, when a steam-powered car took the record.

Despite this propitious beginning, a little less than two decades later the electric car was on the wane—in 1913, for example, more than eighty electric car models were available on the US market; just four years later, that number had dwindled to barely twenty. Several factors contributed to why internal combustion vehicles came to dominate the automobile market so completely: gas prices dropped with the rigging of crude oil in Texas; Henry Ford’s new production techniques made gas automobiles suddenly far cheaper than electric cars; and America’s burgeoning road culture made speed and convenience at long distances the decisive criteria for customers’ choices. Although the brief revival of the electric car in the 1970s was ultimately not sustained, recent trends in automotive technology suggest that electric cars may have better luck in the twenty-first century.

Victoria carriage, US, ca. 1900.
Delivery wagon, US, ca. 1900.
“La Jamais Contente,” the first car to exceed 100 km/h, France, 1899.
Car at the Electric Show, Denver Auditorium, US, 1910s. Courtesy Denver Public Library.
MetroVick delivery van, UK, 1930s.
Victor delivery van, UK, 1930s.
Midland milk delivery van, UK, 1930s.
Public station for charging electric cars, US, 1910s.
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