Electric Cars from 1860-1930

Thomas Edison standing with an electric vehicle.

Imagine New York City in the year 1900.  In the midst of the industrial revolution, with inventors like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Nicola Tesla, the United States was undergoing rapid change.  But when you imagine a turn-of-the-century New Yorker entering a taxi of the time, you’re probably thinking of the famous Model T.  As the first inexpensive gas-powered automobile, the Model T stands out to many Americans as the only car to grace 19th Century streets – which is a huge misconception in the history of EVs.

No, when a 1900s New Yorker opened the door to their taxi, there was a good chance it was an electric vehicle.  In fact, electric vehicles were widely popular in the United States, as combustion engines of the era were too noisy and required a difficult hand crank startup.  Though just a few decades, electric vehicles were fairly pervasive until Model T, which was cheaper and didn’t require a hand crank, changed the tides.  In both our collective memories and in the marketplace, the Model T pushed electric vehicles into obscurity.

So let’s have a look at the true history of EVs in the United States.

The Early History of EVs

The history of electric vehicles actually starts with the electric motor.  This remarkable invention is widely credited to Thomas Davenport, an American blacksmith.  By harnessing the power of magnets through an electric pile (an early battery developed by Alessandro Volta), Davenport created what is known as a “brush and commutator.”  This device functions to reverse magnet polarity, which in the case of his motor, created a rotor that could spin continuously as long as electricity was applied.  That was in 1834 – Davenport would spend many years convincing others his motor could be the foundation of electric trains.  Although others had created ways of transforming electricity into mechanical energy, Thomas Davenport’s electric motor, when deployed in a toy car on a track, would serve as the model for electric streetcars.

Davenport initially struggled against institutional sluggishness when he tried to spread the word about the electric motor.  Humorously, the patent he filed was rejected on the grounds that an electric device had never been patented in America before.  In order for the motor to really take off, it would require an entrepreneur with a knack for innovative applications.  It would find such a person in Thomas Parker, an inventor and businessman in England in the late 19th Century.  By the time Parker invented the first electric car, he had already been electrifying England for years.  His dynamos and electric lights kept coal mines lit, and he helped to electrify trams and the London Underground.  With Parker’s talent and vision, the electric car had been born – and though he’d drive to work in his creation, he’d regularly complain that the hilly topography drained his batteries too quickly.  Clearly, EVs still had a little way to go before they could be practically adopted.

The History of EVs in America

This EV, driving past the White House in 1905, is a BLUR compared to the carriage behind it!

According to the US Department of Energy, however, it wouldn’t be too long before the first successful electric car would strike a chord in the United States.  In 1890,  William Morrison created a six-passenger car that would be the founding technology for a coming trend.  At the time, Morrison’s electric car could hit 14 miles an hour – two full miles above the speed limit for motor vehicles in New York City.

The extra speed Americans were getting from that electric motor wasn’t put to waste, either.  Within a decade the first speeding ticket in America would be given to an electric vehicle.  By then, you could find those electric taxis all throughout New York, Paris, and Mexico City, and electric motors started finding their way into commercial businesses.  In 1899, the Autocar company released its first electric truck.  In 1907, London had an electric bus service courtesy of the London Electrobus Company – you could even find electric busses in West Point, ferrying students to and fro.

The Decline of the Electric Motor

Unfortunately for EVs, it was also around this time that Henry Ford created the Model T.  A gasoline-fueled automobile, the Model T’s ease of use and affordability effectively ended the commercial desirability of electric cars.  Selling at less than half the price of an electric model, many more people could afford a Model T.  In the same year the Model T released, the electric starter was created.  Using a battery, gas engines could now start nearly instantly, as compared with the long warm-up time of the physically demanding crank-start method.  By removing the accessibility barriers for gasoline engines, these inventors have paved the way for gas-powered cars to dominate the 20th Century, and even the start of the 21st.  They’d also indirectly killed the electric vehicle.

Although you could see electric vehicles on the market for years after, it wouldn’t be until the 70’s that electric cars would get a jump start.

1960 – 2000

Coming Soon – the revival of vehicle electrification and elements that came into play to bring EVs back to the market and popular imagination.

Up to 2022 and Beyond

Coming Soon – the modern history of the electric vehicle.