History of the electric car

History of the electric car

Mar 13 2018 | by Louise Woodhams

The electric vehicle may be the future, but they are not the product of modern technology with their origins dating as far back as the early 1800s

If you think electric cars are the invention of Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO at Tesla, think again, for there were technology entrepreneurs who wanted to revolutionise transportation long before his time. While it is hard to pinpoint the invention of the electric car to one inventor or country there were series of breakthroughs in the 1800s that led to the first EV on the road.

A revolution of visionaries

While the first electric carriage powered by crude non-rechargeable batteries was widely attributed to Scottish inventor, Robert Anderson, which took place in 1837, if you want to trace the electric car back to its humblest origins, then Anyos Jedlik should take the credit.

Just a few years previously, in 1828, the Hungarian created a type of electric motor that he used to power a small model carriage. It couldn’t carry people as Anderson’s creation could, but it kick-started a revolution of innovators who began toying with the concept of a battery-powered vehicle, including American Thomas Davenport who built the first practical electric vehicle in 1831.

The biggest breakthrough however was in 1859 when French physicist Gaston Planté invented the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery and made electric motoring a practical proposition. In fact, all of today's pure electric cars owe their existence to Plante's discovery.

Gaston Plante

In 1881, his countryman Camille Faure then went onto improve the storage battery's ability to supply current and developed the basic lead-acid battery used in automobiles which required plugging in to recharge.

Just three years later, and a decade before the first petrol-powered cars arrived in the UK, industrialist Thomas Parker (who electrified the London Underground and overhead tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham) created an electric car that he would regularly drive to work in his hometown of Wolverhampton. Impressively, Parker's invention came a year before the world's first production car – the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. While Parker's car, powered by his own specially designed high-capacity rechargeable batteries, had the potential to be mass produced, its second prototype which was sent in a ship to Paris sank in the Channel.

Thomas Parker

Electric cars gain popularity

In the States, motorists were a lot keener to embrace electric cars. William Morrison is credited with building the first successful battery-powered electric automobile. The Scottish born chemist is credited with over 20 patents for devices connected with electric storage batteries, including one for an automatic regulator for electric current and on an improved method of making storage battery plates. In 1887 Morrison installed his battery in a carriage built by the Des Moines Buggy Co, but it was not very successful.

In 1890 he built a second electric automobile, a total of about 12 were made and it caused much more of a sensation. The 'Morrison Electric' was a six-passenger vehicle capable of a top speed of 14mph (although realistically was between 6 and 12mph). The Shaver Carriage Company built the carriage and Morrison designed and produced the batteries. The 24 storage battery cells were mounted under the front seat and had an output of 112 amperes at 58 volts and took ten hours to charge. The 4bhp motor was mounted beneath the carriage and geared to the rear axle. In 1891 Morrison signed a contract with the American Battery Company to manufacture and promote the Morrison battery. It was said that a range of 100 miles was achievable, which is pretty impressive given that some EVs on the market today still offer less.

Another milestone was reached in 1899, when engineer Camille Jenatzy set a new land speed record while driving his famous La Jamais Contente (meaning The Never Satisfied), which he held until 1902, when a steam-powered car reached 75mph. Powered by two electric motors producing a combined 67bhp, the Belgian-built electric racer, was the first road vehicle to reach 62mph.

La 'Jamais-Contente' de Jenatzy à Achères en 1899

The popularity of electric cars was rising sharply at this point. Walter Bersey designed a fleet of electric cabs (nicknamed Hummingbird due to the humming noise they made), which hit the streets on London in 1897, while in America several automakers had jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, according to the 1900 census, of the 4192 cars produced in the US, 1575 were electric. And they continued to show strong sales over the next decade, especially with urban residents, and in particular upper class women, who found them easier to operate. At the same time, a new type of vehicle – the petrol-powered car was coming onto the market, but they were noisy, smelly and required a lot of manual effort to drive (changing gears wasn’t easy and they had to be manually cranked to start).

Many other innovators began to sit up and take notice of the electric vehicle’s high demand and started exploring ways to improve the technology. Ferdinand Porsche is actually best known for creating the world’s first hybrid electric car, rather than the sports car firm that bears the family name. Weighing just 130kg, offering an output of 3hp (or 5hp for short periods in overloading mode) enabling it to reach a maximum speed of 22mph, the ‘Egger-Lohner electric vehicle C.2 Phaeton model’ (known as the ‘P1’ for short) was one of the first vehicles registered in Austria, and took to the streets of Vienna in 1898. A year later it was entered into the Berlin road race with eight other models and with three passengers on board, Ferdinand Porsche crossed the finish line 18 minutes ahead of the second car. It also came out on top in the efficiency test, where it is recorded as the lowest energy consumption vehicle in urban traffic.

lohner porsche semper vivus porsche ag

Then there was Thomas Edison, famous for the invention of the phonograph, but also worked hard to create a long-lasting, powerful battery for commercial automobiles. Edison claimed his nickel–iron design, patented and commercialised in 1901, to be far superior to batteries using lead plates and acid. Edison's batteries had a significantly higher energy density than its rivals’ lead-acid batteries and could be charged in half the time; however they performed poorly at low temperatures and were more expensive.

One of the most interesting manufacturers was Oliver P. Fritchle, who began as an auto repairman until he realised he could build a better electric car himself. He sold his first vehicle in 1906 and set up a production plant in Denver, Colorado, two years later. He made one of the best car batteries on the market, which he claimed could travel 100 miles on a single charge. He was so confident he set out on a publicity stunt in 1908 from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City in a two-seat Fritchle Victoria model that sold for $2000. It took him 20 days to drive the 1800 mile journey over rough roads (with one flat tyre), charging at electric stations or garages at night. The ‘100-mile Fritchle’, as it was marketed, was so successful that the electrical engineer opened a sales office on Fifth Avenue in New York City, catering to the city’s affluent.

Combustion engine reigns supreme

While at the turn of the century electric cars still made up a good proportion of the market, advances were being made in petrol-powered vehicles. The biggest blow to the electric car came when Henry Ford introduced the first affordable automobile, the Model T in 1908. By 1912, the petrol car cost only $650, while in comparison the average electric roadster sold for $1750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the first practical electric automobile starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank, which also helped pave the way for the electric car's demise.

old model t ford 1920

In the end, electric vehicles all but disappeared by 1935 as cheap, abundant petrol and continued improvement in the internal combustion engine hampered demand for alternative fuel vehicles. The 1970s saw a brief return in popularity as the global energy crisis initiated a growing interest to find alternative methods of fuel, but electric cars still lagged behind their predecessors; many topped out at 45mph and some could only drive 40 miles before needing to be recharged. They were still generally considered slow and inefficient compared to their petrol and diesel counterparts.

Resurgence of the electric vehicle

While efforts from leading car makers in the second half of the 20th century helped show the world the promise of the technology, the true revival of the electric vehicle didn’t happen until around the start of the 21st century. By this point, almost all the major likely impacts of climate change caused by human activities were well understood on a global scale, and car makers began to make up for years of delay.

In 1996 General Motors’ EV1 went into production – it was the first mass-produced electric car from a major industry player, and designed and developed from the ground up. With a range of 80 miles and the ability to accelerate from 0 to 50mph in seven seconds, the EV1 quickly gained a cult following. But in 2003 they were all reclaimed – the official reasons cited were the unprofitability of production and maintaining a legally mandated servicing and parts supply infrastructure. Other manufacturers that followed suit with similar models (such as Honda's EV Plus, Ford's Ranger pickup EV, Nissan's Altra EV, Chevy's S-10 EV and Toyota's RAV4 EV) that were also largely available for lease only, were discontinued by the early 2000s, too.

1996 GM EV1

The first turning point was the introduction of the Toyota Prius. Released in Japan in 1997, and worldwide in 2000, it went on to become the best-selling hybrid of the decade. Its immense popularity resulted in an international trend towards the adoption of more fuel-efficient technology as hybrid cars became slicker and more widespread.


It is also argued much of the electric vehicle's recent turnaround is due to the efforts of technology entrepreneur Elon Musk. In 2008, the American automotive and energy company launched the Roadster, a performance electric car capable of accelerating from 0-60 mph in about four seconds and on to a top speed of more than 130mph. It was the first road legal serial production all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells, and the first production all-electric car to travel more than 200 miles per charge.

It was this car that no doubt spurred many of the other brands to accelerate work on their own electric vehicles and in 2010, Nissan introduced the all-electric LEAF in Japan and America. It was the first modern all-electric, zero tailpipe emission five-door family hatchback produced for the mass market. Then just a year later, in the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces that the British government will promote the use of electric vehicles in the UK by offering a £2000 subsidy to purchasers. A high-ranking government official estimates that 40 per cent of all cars in Britain will need to be electric or hybrid for the country to reach its goal of cutting 80 per cent of its CO2 emissions by 2050.

2011 Nissan LEAF

The future

In July 2017, the UK government published its ‘Plan for roadside NO2 contractions’, which included the plan to end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, despite intense lobbying from British mayors and climate campaigners to bring the target forward to 2030. Looking at the market today, UK electric car registrations grew by 19 per cent in 2018 with almost 60,000 new plug-in electric cars registered (bringing the total up to almost 200,000). That means one new electric car is registered every nine minutes, showing that the trend towards fuel efficiency does seem to be gaining speed.

Britain is a long way behind China however, who have the largest electric car market in the world, accounting for half sold in 2017 (580,000 units representing 72 per cent increase from previous year) while United States lay claim to the second-highest (280,000 sold, up from 160,000 in 2016).

Whatever your opinion, it’s pretty clear electric cars have a lot of potential for creating a more sustainable future, and overtime as improvements are made to battery life and range, prices reduce, and the charging network increases, they will become more mainstream.

History of the electric car

Comments (1)

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16/05/2019 11:21

You forgot to mention the electric milkfloats of the 1970's/80's!

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