Casting Out Devils

Speaking Conservative Truth to Evil-Doers

A History of Early Electric Cars

with 2 comments

1896 Electrobat

1896 Electrobat

by Paul A. Hughes

Previously published at (now defunct).  Originally written as a research paper for American History course at Texas A&M University, circa 1979.  Cited in the books, The End of the Road: the Transition to Safe, Green Power (Xlibris, 2010) by Joseph McKinney and Amy Isler Gibson, and NASA Contests and Prizes:  How Can They Help Advance Space Exploration?:  Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Committee on Science, House of Representatives, One Hundred Eighth Congress, second session, July 15, 2004, Volume 2, Issues 108-166.

Every few years, engineers unveil the latest experimental electric car, touting it as a panacea for the pollution of the world’s crowded cities and the depletion of vital resources.  These quaint conveyances are shown tooling along city streets, operating with a gentle hum, emitting no fumes to choke the lungs or burn the eyes.  Their design is clean and functional, their controls simple.  Still, they fail once again to “catch on,” capturing the interest and imagination of the general public.  The next model goes the way of the last, exiled to obscurity.

Today, few people realize that successful electric automobiles were being produced as early as the 1880’s.  For over 20 years, electric cars were commercially produced, and were for some years in heady competition with internal combustion and steam-powered carriages.  Not until internal combustion technology and promotion, along with cheap fuel, had outstripped all competition, did electric cars drop out of the automotive picture.

The Storage Battery

The technology required for the electric car was being developed long before the automobile was conceived.  The primary cell, invented by Volta in 1800, generated electricity by chemical action.  This primitive battery could be recharged only by replacing the active elements.   Not until 1860, when Gaston Faure invented the secondary cell, could a battery be recharged by simply passing a current through it — providing portable, renewable electric power.

In spite of earlier experimental work, a working electric motor was not built until 1833.   Thomas Davenport, an uneducated Vermont blacksmith, conceived it after observing a demonstration of an electromagnet.  Davenport patented his motor in 1837.

Riding the Rails

The invention of both the storage battery and the electric motor set the stage for their incorporation into an electric vehicle.  Davenport had in fact built a model electric locomotive as early as 1834, powered by primary cells.  In 1847, Moses Farmer of Massachusetts designed a locomotive that, powered by 48 one-pint cells, could carry two people along an 18-inch-wide track.

About the same time, Professor Charles Page of Washington, D.C., built a locomotive which, using 100 cells and a 16-horsepower motor, carried twelve people on the Washington and Bladensburg Railroad at up to 19 mph.  In 1847, Lilly and Colton of Pittsburg built a locomotive which received its power, produced from a central station, through an electrified rail.

Taking to the Road

Such rail-bound vehicles were a great leap forward, but it would be 30 years before another major advance.  In 1888, electric cars suddenly began appearing on the scene both in the U.S. and abroad.  Philip Pratt of Boston built an electric tricycle powered by six Electrical Accumulator Company cells, weighing 90 pounds.  In London, Ratcliffe Ward began operating an electric omnibus, the foundation of the London Electrical Cab Company.  Walter Bersey, a brilliant 20-year-old who had invented an improved dry battery, designed Ward’s second bus.  In two years, this second bus was licensed to make a regular run between Charing Cross and Victoria Station.

The first really successful electric automobile was the carriage built by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, in 1890.  Morrison’s car used high, spoked wagon wheels to negotiate the rutted roads of America, and an innovative guidance system which included patented rack-and-pinion steering.  Morrison’s car was capable of running for 13 consecutive hours at 14 mph.  Much of the car’s success, however, was attributable to the promotional efforts of Harold Sturges, secretary of the American Battery Company.

1890 Morrison

1890 Morrison

Fits and Starts

In May, 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago.  Exhibits included the Morrison-Sturges carriage, another by the Ward Electrical Car Company, and two Keller-Dagenhart tricycles.  Originally, an entire fleet of Keller-Dagenharts was ordered to transport patrons around the exposition ground.  But only two were built, thus missing a golden opportunity to make electric vehicles a major attraction at the fair.

About that time, electric cars were built by W. J. Still of Toronto and Dickson’s Carriage Works of Ontario.  Dickson’s car was commissioned by Frederick Barnard Featherstonhaugh, who later granted it an honorable retirement after 15 years’ service.

Walter Bersey designed and built a post office van in 1893.  The next year, he completed a four-seater car.  But Bersey was constantly in trouble for violating Britain’s Red Flag Act which, among other regulations, restricted automobiles to 2 mph in cities, and required two drivers, plus a third man walking ahead of the vehicle.

Stiff Competition

At this juncture, steam and internal combustion cars began to emerge as stiff competition to the electric.  James Bullard introduced the flash boiler in 1885, enabling steam cars to get up steam within minutes.  Nicolaus Otto of Deutz, Germany, combined the best features of previous internal combustion engines into his successful four-cycle engine of 1877.  The first gasoline-powered cars were built by John Lambert and Henry Nadig in 1891.

In 1894, Le Petit Journal sponsored a 78-mile car race from Paris to Rouen.  Then, in 1895, the Automotive Club of France held the great Paris-Bordeaux race of a then incredible 727 miles in length.  Only steam and gasoline cars participated in these two events, and the upstart gasoline cars asserted themselves convincingly.

The Big Race

H. H. Kohlsaat, publisher of the Chicago Times-Herald, decided to sponsor an automotive contest which was more than just a sensationalized competition.  The Times-Herald contest ostensibly placed great emphasis on preliminary tests and evaluations with only a secondary interest in the outcome of a road race.  The primary considerations of the test were to be general utility, cost, speed, economy of operation, and general appearance.

The competition took place in November of 1895.  The road-race itself, in which just six cars participated, was by no means on the scale of the previous European races.  Many automobile developers who had planned to participate were foiled by either mechanical difficulties or by the snowstorm which took place the night before the race.

Two of the entries were electric.  Morrison had planned to enter a new version of his carriage, but found it could not be readied in time.  Instead, he removed the third bench seat of his original car to make room for more batteries.   The race version dressed out at 3535 pounds.

The other electric car in the race was the Electrobat II of Henry Morris and Pedro Salom.  The pair had completed their first car, the Electrobat I, in 1894.  Their improved model was steered by the rear wheels instead of the front, and powered by two 1-1/2 horsepower motors mounted on the front axle, weighing in at 1650 pounds.  With a range of 25 miles at 20 mph, the Electrobat II was one of the first automobiles to employ pneumatic tires.

The other entries in the race, all gasoline-powered, were those of the Duryea brothers, H. Mueller and Company, R. H. Macy Company, and the De La Vergne Refrigerating Company.  Of these, all but the Duryea car sported engines designed by Karl Benz of Mannheim, Germany.

After all the other tests were complete, the participants lined up for the road race on November 28.  The snowstorm the night before covered the 54-mile course, already rutted, with eight inches of new snow.  In spite of cold temperatures, ranging from 30 to 39 degrees, crowds lined the course.

Only the Duryea and Mueller cars were able to finish the race.  The Duryea won easily, averaging 8 mph in spite of a 55-minute stop to repair the steering mechanism.  Morris and Salom had planned to have fresh batteries relayed along the course, but the wagons carrying them could not get through.  Consequently, the Electrobat II was limited to a short demonstration run.   The Morrison electric was overworked in the deep snow, causing its motor to overheat.  It was forced to drop out of the race after three hours.

After the race, the judges were ready to present the awards.  The Duryea car earned $2000 for its speed, power, compactness, and race performance.  The Mueller car was awarded $1500 for its performance and overall economy.  The race performance of the Morrison and Macy cars garnered each of them $500.  The Electrobat II was granted no money, but was awarded a special gold medal for “best showing in official tests, for safety, ease of control, absence of noise, vibration, heat, or odor, cleanliness and general excellence of design and workmanship.”1 Though the outcome of the road-race had been officially minimized in the beginning, it seems to have been the major consideration when monetary prizes were awarded.

The Success Years

In May of 1896, H. J. Lawson held an auto show at the Imperial Institute at South Kensington, England, attended by the Prince of Wales.   This time, Walter Bersey’s latest carriage, elegant and absolutely silent in operation, stole the show.

For the time being, the electric car held its own with its competitors.  More and more entrepreneurs began manufacturing electric vehicles.  In 1895, Colonel Albert A. Pope of Columbia Bicycle fame had an electric car built by inventor Hiram Maxim.  Maxim’s design was a Crawford horse-drawn runabout converted to electric power.  Pope went on to produce electric cars for several years before changing to internal combustion.

Early in 1897, Morris and Salom formed the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which ran twelve electric cabs on the streets of New York City.

General Electric began building electric cars in 1898.  In December of that year, Count Chasseloup-Laubat achieved a record speed of 39.25 mph in his Jeantaud Electric automobile.  At the time, only the electric car was capable of such speed.

The Count did not hold the record for long.  In 1899, Belgian inventor Camille Jenatzy challenged him to a series of races.  Jenatzy’s “La Jamais Contente” had a 100-horsepower motor, and was one of the first “streamlined” automobiles.  In fact, Jenatzy’s car looked like a bullet on wheels.

La Jamais Contente

La Jamais Contente

A series of three races were held at Achere from January 17 to April 29.  In the first two races, the two cars matched speeds at 41.42 mph and 49.42 mph, respectively.  On the third try, Jenatzy’s electric achieved a then incredible 65.79 mph.  This record was not broken until Leon Serpollet’s steamer reached 75.06 mph at Nice, France, in 1902.

In 1899, ninety percent of the cabs in New York City were electric.   By 1900, the Electric Vehicle Company had put hundreds of its electric Hansom cabs, modeled after the design of its horse-drawn predecessors, on the streets of the metropolis.  The Hansoms eliminated the need for a differential by providing a separate motor and axle for each rear wheel.

For three years, Canadian Motors Limited produced a small two-seater electric called the “Motette,” beginning in 1900.  The same company also manufactured an electric bus called the “Tallyho.”

Henry and Clem Studebaker had begun their wagon manufacturing business in 1852, and supplied wagons to the Union Army during the Civil War.  In 1902, the company decided to enter the electric car market, producing a light, conservative runabout.   But after manufacturing electrics for six or seven years, they switched to internal combustion.

Unresolved Difficulties

The advantages of the electric car had been realized from the beginning.  Near-silent operation and lack of unpleasant exhaust emissions made the electric automobile ideal for city use.  Its controls were simple enough for a child.  But because of certain inherent drawbacks, the increasing availability of cheap petroleum, constant improvements in internal combustion, and to a significant degree the whims of consumers, the electric car market began to lose its momentum.

The major disadvantages of the electric car can be attributed largely to its immediate power source, the storage battery.  The lead-acid battery underwent many changes over the years and was much improved, thanks to the work of Faure, Brush, Volckmar, Swan, Sellon, Correns, Bersey, and others.  However, its inherent faults remained: the electrolyte, sulfuric acid, was by nature corrosive.  The batteries deteriorated even when not in use and had to be replaced in about two years at significant expense.

Battery cases were prone to leak, staining or corroding surrounding parts of the car and emitting noxious fumes.  The acid fumes were not only unpleasant but potentially explosive and otherwise hazardous to the car’s occupants.  The batteries were heavy, close to 100 pounds per horsepower-hour.  Because of the weight, electric cars had trouble climbing hills. Extremes of temperature affected battery performance.  A charge was good for 20-60 miles, depending on the make of the battery, the type of automobile, and the way in which it was used.

In 1900, Thomas Edison undertook to invent, develop and market an entirely new type of battery.  Starting from scratch, he was able to begin manufacturing the new battery in four years.  Edison’s battery was based on an entirely new combination of elements, nickel-alkaline, with a non-corrosive electrolyte, potassium hydroxide.  Non-corrosive, its contents sealed safely in a nickel-plated case, Edison expected the battery to solve the problems of the electric car.  The cells were much lighter, only 53 pounds per horsepower-hour.

Edison with Alkaline Battery

Edison with Alkaline Battery

However, the voltage produced by the nickel-alkaline battery was lower, 1.2 volts as opposed to 1.5 volts for the lead-acid battery.  More cells would be required to do the same job.  Edison halted production when reports of leaking cases, bad electrical contacts, and a drop in voltage during use were reported.  He withdrew the battery from the market in order to do more work.  In about five years, he released an improved version.

The Decline

Unfortunately, the introduction of the improved battery was too little, too late.  By that time, the electric-powered car could no longer compete with the speed, power, economy, and range of the internal combustion engine.  By 1910, the general public had come to prefer the sputter, cloud of smoke, and raw power of the gasoline engine to the silent operation of the electric motor.  The roar of an engine became a sign of power, prestige, and progress.  The gentle electric came to be associated with senior citizens.

Like the steamer, the electric car was made obsolete by the advances of internal combustion.  More than that, the electric lost the imagination of the public, which was its ultimate downfall.  Only token electric cars have been produced since 1914, more curiosities than commercial successes.  For electric cars to compete again in an open market, barring a major and prolonged oil crisis, it would seem that they must not only match their competitors in technology and performance, but recapture the public imagination, as well.


  1. L. Scott Bailey et al., The American Car Since 1775 (NY: Automobile Quarterly, Inc., 1971), p. 96.

© 1996 Paul A. Hughes


Written by biblequestion

February 1, 2011 at 7:40 PM

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Here´s hoping the electric car can make its return. Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Third Industrial Revolution, seems to think that a world power sharing grid will come into being.


    September 28, 2011 at 12:35 AM

  2. Nice article and very informative about electric cars. Thanks.

    Juststarted a company Plugin Motors Limited and based in London, United Kingdom.

    The business plan is to electrify around 10 cars per year. All will be Oldtimers. Why Oldtimers? First, because I love some of them and second because I believe they are a perfect target for full electrification as they consume tons of fuel and they are spacious enough to fit lots of batteries inside, thus increasing overall range.

    In addition, our business model includes the installation of solar panels. My calculations show that 9*6 meters of solar panels which fit easily on a garage roof are sufficient to provide all the energy required to run the OldTimer 20000 miles per year.

    Also we are currently experimenting with solar paint which will provide some additional energy as applied directly over the car. We are in contact with several suppliers in the US which are completing research and starting production on solar paints.

    One downside is that electrified cars are quite costly, even if over the years of ownership the original purchasing costs are mostly offset by fuel savings. Also many companies offer free recharging facilites to staff directly on their premises and also some cities do over free charging parking lots.

    We would love to get your view and opinion on this. Please come by and visit our site and if you like, leave some inspiring comments about the future of cars.

    BTW our hero is Mr Volk, born and died in Brighton, who constructed th oldest still running electrical train on Earth. There is a impressive article about him and the ship-train that run on the Brighton coast in the 18th century for about 20 years where the pilot had to actually have a ship captian license because it was considered a ship more than a train, but run on rails!

    Good bye



    notepad publishing

    May 29, 2015 at 1:07 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: