The first electric cars were made in the early decades of the 19th century, when innovators such as Robert Anderson in Scotland and Ányos Jedlik in Hungary experimented with electric motive power. Only later in the century, especially in the 1890s, did electric vehicles become practical.
Mass-produced electric cars aren’t strictly a 21st-century phenomenon, either. The first Studebaker ‘practical horseless carriage’ was battery-powered and sold from 1902 to 1912. Multiple times, electric cars came close to or succeeded in breaking out from experimental scenes over the 19th and 20th centuries.
Here’s the story of the first electric cars.
Early electric vehicles
We don’t have to go back to the stone age to unpick the origins of the earliest electric vehicles, because we know that the first, simple electric motors were experimented with in the 1740s by Scotsman Andrew Gordon as well as other scientists such as American founding father Benjamin Franklin.
The invention of the electric car can be attributed to multiple people in different parts of the world. But perhaps the earliest contender in line for the credit is Hungarian priest Ányos Jedlik. Between 1827 and 1828, he produced a small model vehicle powered by an early type of electric motor.
He wasn’t the only one to develop an electric motor and place it inside a model vehicle. Around 1835, the Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport operated a small model locomotive on a short, circular track. Other inventors across the world contributed to the development of electric vehicles in this period, such as the Dutch Sibrandis Stratingh and his assistant Christopher Becker.
These early machines were rather on the small side, however, and it was on the other side of the Atlantic where the first full-sized electric vehicle was developed by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson. Powered by non-rechargeable primary cells, he constructed an electric-powered carriage sometime around 1832.
Rise of the machines
It wasn’t until the 1880s that the first motor which could convert direct current (DC) electrical energy into mechanical energy could be put to practical use. Frank Julian Sprague is credited with its invention in 1886. This proved a stimulant for the development of mass-produced electric cars.
Some novel electric vehicles had already been developed in the 1880s, such as engineer Gustave Trouvé’s electric tricycle. This was the result of Trouvé fitting a recently developed rechargeable battery and a small electric motor developed by Siemens to an English James Starley tricycle.
The Flocken Elektrowagen was another revelation, produced in 1888. Designed by German inventor Andreas Flocken, the wooden chaise had four wheels and could transfer approximately 1 horsepower to the rear axle by means of leather belts. Its top speed may have reached a breathtaking 9 miles per hour.
Around the turn of the century, many saw electricity as central to the future. Beyond the steam railways, British cities in 1900 depended upon horsepower for most forms of public transport. As horse tramways and horse omnibuses made way for electric tramways, so might horse cabs and carts make way for electric variants.
The Studebaker Automobile Company was among the early proponents of electric cars. Having worked on a prototype from 1898, under the encouragement of chairman Frederick S. Fish, the company entered the automotive business in 1902 with the Studebaker Electric. These battery-powered cars, which resembled horse-drawn carriages sans the horses, were in production until 1912.
They weren’t the first to market, however. They had previously helped manufacture electric taxis for the Columbia Automobile Company, 500 of which were developed between 1897 and 1899. During this time, electric cars were finding greater commercial use. Walter Bersey’s electric cabs became the first self-propelled vehicles for hire in London, and in New York, the Electrobat automobile formed a model for around a dozen cabs.
By 1912, however, the limited production of electric cars had stopped at companies such as Studebaker. A statement by the Corporation announced that “the production of electric automobiles at South Bend has ended… It has been conducted for nine years without much success, and ultimately the superiority of the gasoline car (is) apparent.”
In the early 20th century, advances in the internal-combustion engine, quicker refuelling times, cheaper production costs and the introduction of the electric starter motor combined to divert attention away from the electric car.
Electricity had begun to transform urban mobility, but it would be the gasoline (or petrol) powered automobile that would achieve widespread adoption during the 20th century.