Updated: Dec 20, 2021
Image courtesy MadeUpInBritain.uk
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 named “Car Engineer of the Century” in Las Vegas after a vote overseen by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation.)
Photo courtesy historywebsite.co.uk
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 transportation mode “decorated” the cobblestones as they navigated their car along.
Much-publicized auto races soon began testing the performance limits of the new cars and capturing the public imagination. On a snowy Thanksgiving Day, Thursday 27 November 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald newspaper sponsored the USA’s first automobile race. Of 100 entries, only six showed up. Of those six cars, four were gas-powered (one had been made by the Duryea Brothers, Charles and Frank, and their “Duryea Motor Wagon Company” of Springfield MA, whose first-in-the-USA cars had debuted on western Massachusetts roads in 1893, and three Benz cars had been imported from Germany). Two were electric, those made respectively by Morris and Salom of Philadelphia and Sturgis of Chicago. All drivers were signaled to go at 0855 local time. Ten hours and 23 minutes later at 1918 local time, after multiple breakdowns, the Duryea vehicle managed to complete the difficult 87-km round-trip course from Chicago’s Jackson Park to Evanston IL and back, contending with snow, ice, poor roads, and mechanical mishaps. The Benz soon followed in second place. They had become the first cars to finish a US race. The monetary prize for the winner: US $2,000, or $66,178, as of 2021.
In southern New England, back on a blustery Monday 7 September 1896, the first closed-circuit auto race took place at Narragansett Park, in Cranston RI, at the annual Rhode Island State Fair. Competing in that race were four gas-powered Duryeas, two other gas-powered cars, plus a Riker Electric Motor Co. car and a Morris & Salom Electrobat. The cars raced for 8 kilometers (making five circuits of the one-mile oval track). The Riker electric won the contest in 15 minutes and 15 seconds, with the Electrobat 13 seconds close behind.
Indeed, electric automobiles became rather common in Europe and the Eastern and Midwestern USA during the late 1800s. Electric cars were much cheaper than ICE gas-powered cars (even putting aside the drastically divergent environmental impacts). In addition, electric cars had regenerative braking systems, which recapture the kinetic energy of the vehicle that is used to recharge the batteries when brakes are applied. Plus, the cost to service an electric car was much lower. Electric cars had no engine vibrations, were extremely quiet., and emitted no smoke or backfire frequently as did gas powered cars. And they were ready to go right as soon as you took your seat, unlike gas powered cars that needed to be cranked by hand to start. Furthermore, when driving, no gear changes were needed, and virtually no noise was produced.
Photo courtesy The Science Museum in London Parked outdoors, here is a surviving Bersey electric taxi.
A clean and quiet fleet of yellow-and-black taxicabs called Hummingbirds debuted on Thursday 19 August 1897, plying London streets during British Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, marking her 60 years on the throne. (He had previewed the cabs at a motor show exhibit in South Kensington, late in 1896.) Initially, 12 cars--carrying two passengers each--could attain top speeds of 14 to 19 kph. The fleet soon expanded to some 75 vehicles. English electrical engineer and inventor Walter C. Bersey (1874-1950), general manager of the London Electrical Cab Company, expressed his optimistic vision: “There is no apparent limit to the hopes and expectations of the electric artisans…..in short [it] is the natural power which shall be the most intimate and effective of all man’s assets.” The Prince of Wales, who later reigned as Britain’s King Edward VII from January 1901 till his death in May 1910 and was namesake for the Edwardian Era, even supposedly rode in a Bersey taxi. However, problems with vibrations, noise, tires, and batteries prompted their demise in August 1899. (Bersey had earlier built an electric bus that test-ran for more than 4,800 km. In March 1894, his electric parcel van had begun making deliveries in central London.)
Also in that year of 1897, the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia made the first electric taxis for New York City: 12 hansom cabs and one brougham. There, alas, gas-powered yellow taxis would one day be ubiquitous, with the first fleet of some 600 imported from France circa 1906 by Harry N. Allen. (He had all those cabs painted yellow, after surveys indicated that was the most visible color.)
On Saturday 29 April 1899, near Paris, a torpedo-shaped, metal-alloy electric race car called the "La Jamais Contente" (“The Never Contented”) set a land-speed record of 109 kph. This first electric record-setting racecar, which weighed a hefty 1450 kg, was built by Belgian electrical engineer Camille Jénatzy (nicknamed “The Red Devil”). In that same year, 1899, German automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) invented the first hybrid car, running on both gasoline and electricity. Porsche founded his eponymous high-end car company in 1931 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Alas, he also enthusiastically joined the Nazi Party. During the 1933-1945 Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, Porsche produced the iconic Volkswagen Beetle car, but also the V-1 flying bomb. Nevertheless, in December 1999, the Global Automotive Elections Foundation at its Las Vegas meeting would name Porsche as its "Car Engineer of the Century," the 20th century, that is.)
Photo courtesy The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn MI
This Baker electric car served five US First Ladies, from 1912 till 1928.
In 1909, new 37th POTUS William Howard Taft began the White House motor pool, using $12,000 (or $36,650 in 2021) from Congress to buy one Baker Victoria Electric (from his native Ohio), one steam-powered White, and two gas-driven Pierce Arrows. From 1909 till 1912, Helen Herron Taft (and her three daughters) drove around DC in that Baker Victoria electric car. And in 1912, another Baker electric succeeded it—one able to range for 80 km and attain 48 kph. Starting with Helen Taft, five US First Ladies in all would ride in that Model V electric car, through 1928—Ellen Axson Wilson, Edith Bolling Wilson, Florence Kling Harding, and Grace Goodhue Coolidge.
In 1912, Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric starter motor soon replaced hand-cranking to start cars, removing one negative about gas-powered cars. And US obsession with rapid refueling, “cheaper costs” up front, and longer-distance range made electric cars rare novelty vehicles by 1935. The Texas-Oklahoma oil boom, symbolized by its January 1901 Spindletop “gusher” oil well debut in Beaumont, Texas, started to make “low-cost” gasoline widespread (Gulf Oil [1901-1985] and Texaco [1902-2002], decades later, both absorbed into Chevron [Standard Oil of California], were formed to tap into that Texas oil boom). The 1916 Federal Aid to Roads Act offered modest sums of money to begin upgrading dirt roads to paved ones. In the 1920s, the US had improved paved roads interconnecting cities—US 1 would open in 1926, eventually reaching from Presque Isle ME to Key West FL —fueling demand for longer-range cars. Automaker Henry Ford (1863-1947) and his inexpensive, assembly-line-built, gas-powered Model T cars (1908-1927) soon dominated US car-building. They cost about US $500 to $1,000. (For example, in 1912, an electric roadster sold for $1,750, compared with a $650 gasoline car.) Gas pumps let impatient US Americans get their “gas ‘n’ go” motor cars refueled fast. Then, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened in 1940, presaging the later interstate highway system.
Indeed, even by 1914, an estimated 99 percent of newly made US cars were filthy fossil fuel versions: ICE cars powered by gasoline. And by 1935, electric vehicles had become rarities, remaining so through the 1960s.
But electric cars often had some staying power. One-half century later, a clever 90-second Timex electric watch color ad aired on television. In the circa 1971 ad, a well-dressed patrician lady shopped for a $30 gift watch for her modernistic great-granddaughter. The ad ended with these punch lines:
Watch salesman: “I’m glad to introduce you to the electric!”
Elderly customer: “Don’t talk to me about the electric young man! I’ve been driving one for 50 years!”
After the elderly lady buys the newfangled electric watch, she then drives off—with a parting “ah-ooh-gah” on the vintage black electric car’s horn. (The car resembles the 1921 Milburn Model 27L. US President T. Woodrow Wilson owned and drove a 1918 Milburn electric, and some of his Secret Service agent bodyguards also drove electrics.)
A Waterloo, Iowa newspaper celebrates a 1926-model electric car—still running in June 1942,
six months into US official involvement in WW II, with strict gas rationing in effect.
The few electrics still around during World War II had the advantage of being immune from wartime gas rationing. In June 1942, one Iowa newspaper highlighted the city’s last operating electric car, a 1926 model owned by a local doctor’s widow. But as Waterloo Sunday Courier staff writer Kenneth Murphy opined, “Electric cars, once considered likely to become more popular than the gasoline-propelled vehicles, never created much of a vogue, although at one time there were six of them on the streets of Waterloo.”
Throughout the 1950s, “See the U-S-A/In your Chev-ro-let” would even become a catchy TV auto ad jingle, often sung by popular entertainer Dinah Shore. Restaurants such as Howard Johnson’s (“someone you know wherever you go”) and brand-name full-service petrol stations proliferated to cater to highway travelers.). POTUS Dwight D. Eisenhower, inspired by having seen Nazi Germany’s autobahns and the prevalent Cold War hysteria, proposed and signed the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, which would after some 35 years eventually extend 77,960 km of highways to all 50 states plus DC and Puerto Rico. In most cases, the highways were divided with controlled access, to bolster both safety and speed. An estimated one-quarter of all vehicle kilometers logged in the USA are travelled on interstate highways. And for decades, mighty few of them were accounted for by electric vehicles.