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History of EVs—Part One of Two: Clean, Quiet Electric Cars Pre-date Filthy Fossil Fuel Ones

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

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Thomas Parker (at center) in his invention the electric car in England, with two colleagues.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

[This article is adapted and excerpted from Hogan’s forthcoming in-depth biography of Greta Thunberg and the No. 1 climate crisis underlying science.]

Elon Musk did not, of course, invent the electric car. But in the early 21st century, his futuristic Teslas have done much to revitalize interest in a green transportation mode that actually dates back to before the turn of the century—the 20th century, that is. In late 2019, ace teen Swedish environmental champion Greta Thunberg famously rode along for weeks in a white Tesla Model 3, an electric car driven by her father Svante Thunberg and arranged by actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, across the USA and Canada, during her “green travel” transatlantic trip.

But electric cars actually originated way back, even before the filthy internal combustion engine, gas-powered versions of cars were invented. Sometime between 1832 and 1839, Scotland’s Robert Anderson may have invented the first electric car, a “horseless carriage” with a non-rechargeable battery. About 1834 or 1835, US inventor Thomas Davenport is also credited with building the first electric car. In 1835, Dutch chemist Sibrandus Stratingh developed an “electromagnetic carriage,” one of which can be seen in Groningen, Holland—the oldest extant electric vehicle. Yet another inventor credited with building the first electric car was Ányos Jedlik of Hungary. In any case, in 1865, Gaston Plante of France devised rechargeable lead-acid batteries, and in 1881, Camille Faure of France upgraded the design.

So, building on decades of sporadic research by that handful of eclectic outliers, in 1881, French electrical engineer and inventor Gustave Trouve (1839-1902) presented his model three-wheeled electrical car, with its rechargeable battery, at the International Electrical Congress, which was held in Paris from Thursday 15 September till Wednesday 5 October. However, electric cars were first made practical in 1884, by English genius inventor Thomas Parker (1843-1915), with the aid of English financier Paul Bedford Elwell. Nonother than Lord Kelvin, the namesake of the famous temperature scale, dubbed Parker “the Edison of Europe.” Moreover, England would not see dirty gas-powered cars for another decade or so. Indeed, Parker’s innovative invention pre-dated the pollution-spewing, gasoline-powered, internal-combustion engine version anywhere, with German inventor-engineer Karl F. Benz (1844-1929) receiving the first such patent in January 1886. That is Benz, Karl Benz —as in Mercedes-Benz, maker of upscale cars. (In December 1999, Benz would be namedCar Engineer of the Century” in Las Vegas after a vote overseen by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation.)

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Electric car pioneer inventor Thomas Parker poses beside his wife, Jane Parker, in 1914.

Three years later, in 1884, England’s Parker built a production electric car in Wolverton, in central England. As Stephanie Schoppert wrote for the online site History Collection in 2017, “Parker was very interested in looking at eco-friendly options for transportation after realizing just how bad gas and coal were for the environment. It was to that end that he worked to power more things by electricity… Parker developed several models of electric cars, one of which he drove rather regularly despite the [UK’s 1865] Light Locomotive Act [also dubbed the Red Flag Act]. The Act stated that three men would have to be in the vehicle, two to drive and one to walk in front of the vehicle with a red flag. The car was only legally allowed to go 4 miles per hour [6 kph] on country roads and 2 miles per hour [3 kph] on town roads. He was known as Wolverhampton’s…first motorist. He made a habit of commuting to work in his vehicles, one of which gave him 18 months of trouble-free service.”

Reconstruction in 2011 shows the 1888 Flocken Elektrowagen.

In October 1885, “horseless carriages” were first called “automobiles” in London’s Pall Mall Gazette newspaper. Slowly, the new term would start catching on.

Meanwhile, also in England, an electric tricycle (or “trike”) with electric lights had debuted in 1881. In the USA in 1884, first-year college dropout Andrew L. Riker invented a two-passenger electric tricycle, with a 25-mile range. Four years later in 1888, he formed the Riker EV Company, based in Elizabeth Port NJ. In July 1888, Boston's Philip W. Pratt also invented a 136-kg electrified tricycle. (Famed eccentric billionaire Howard R. Hughes (1905-1976) would later be noted for his involvement with flying, moviemaking, and aerospace. But as a boy of 12 in 1917, he converted his bicycle to run on electricity, by using a 6-volt electric starter motor from a car, and a lead-acid car battery. “Howard Hughes assembled what the paper called Houston’s first motorized bicycle at the age of 12 from parts of a motor that belonged to his father.)

The EV innovation pace picked up. In 1888, German entrepreneur and inventor Andreas Flocken (1845-1913) designed the Flocken Elektrowagen. In 1889, USA super-inventor Thomas Alva Edison himself built an experimental electric vehicle prototype at his lab complex in New Jersey, using nickel-alkaline batteries. In 1891, in Des Moines, Iowa, William Morrison built the first electric car with any success in the United States.

Philadelphia’s first automobile—an electric car, dubbed the Electrobat—debuted on the city’s crude streets on the hot and humid late-summer day of Friday 31 August 1894. The close to 2,000-kg vehicle, which used an adapted ship motor, had been built in just two months by two young men, inventor Henry Morris and chemist Pedro Salom. Horse manure piles from that transpor