When you hear the phrase “first electric cars,” you might think of the Tesla Roadster or the Nissan Leaf. But the first electric cars in the United States were built before 1900, survived for another three decades, and then ceased production in the 1920s. For electric vehicles to succeed today, it’s important to ask why they spread more than a century ago and why they disappeared.
While battery-powered cars were invented in the 1830s, it wasn’t until 1881 that a rechargeable electric battery was fitted to a horseless carriage. By the early 1890s, technology had reached such a level of sophistication that individual inventors were building electric vehicles that were safer and cleaner than the coal or oil-fired steam engine vehicles (which tended to explode), required 50% less road space than horse drawn carriages and leave behind 100% less manure.
America’s first gasoline-powered car, the Duryea Machine, was introduced around the same time (1893), but electric vehicles were often seen as superior technology. Electric vehicles turned on instantly; gasoline cars required starting. Electric devices were easy to use, without the need to change gears; gas-powered cars rumbled, stalled, backfired, and broke down more easily.
In an 1895 “motorcycle” race, the Electrobat (pictured above) received a gold medal for its “safety, ease of control, freedom from noise, vibration, heat and ‘smell, cleanliness and general excellence in design and workmanship’ – even though a Duryea Machine won the race.
Electric vehicles were the first cars to give people a sense of personal autonomy, especially women, who could own and drive a car decades before they could vote.
Electric vehicles were “a symbol and vehicle of female emancipation,” the original freedom machines, and automakers promoted vehicles like the Detroit Electric (pictured at top of page) “à la well-bred woman” like a car where “she can keep her toilet immaculate, her hairstyle intact. Hairstyle intact or not, suffragettes drove electric vehicles to their rallies.
The growing industry
As the market for electric vehicles grew, manufacturing companies took the place of individual inventors. Among the first were the Riker Electric Motor Company, established in 1889, and the Electric Carriage & Wagon Company, which introduced a series of electric taxis (pictured below) to New York City in 1896.
By the end of the century, dozens of well-financed companies had been founded. Electric vehicles could even be purchased from Montgomery Ward catalogs. The companies produced delivery wagons, taxis, phaetons, broughams, stanhopes, single-seaters, two-seaters and four-seaters with ranges of 35 to 88 miles and speeds of up to 15 miles per hour . (The world record for any vehicle in 1898 was 39 mph.)
Why Electric Vehicles Disappeared
At the beginning of the 20and century, 38% of American cars were electric. Only 22% were gasoline and the rest steam.
The electric vehicle industry was consolidating and growing as it improved the efficiency, power and range of its vehicles. For twenty years, the triumph of the gasoline-powered car was by no means inevitable.
Yet challenges lie ahead, similar to those that have slowed the adoption of electric vehicles in the United States today. Here are some of the main obstacles.
An inadequate charging network
Electric vehicles were limited to places that had electricity: cities. Thomas Edison opened the first power plant in 1882, but by 1910 only 10% of American homes had electricity, and rural electrification efforts would not arrive until the 1930s. Electrification was a patchwork of competing systems, voltages and frequencies, with direct current (DC) in the cities and alternating current (AC) in the countryside (where it existed). It was developed by private companies, with little federal planning or oversight until the New Deal.
Associations with gender
Advertising helped create a gasoline-powered car culture. Automakers “conceived a kind of ‘separate spheres’ ideology about the automobile: gasoline cars were for men, electric cars were for women.”
Women were able to cross gender lines and adopt “man cars”, like racer Dorothy Levitt, who drove a gas-powered De Dion at speeds of up to 91 mph. But for men, driving an electric vehicle was a sign of weakness. Argo might have marketed its 1912 electric vehicle as “a woman’s car that every man is proud to drive”, but most men didn’t want to drive “a woman’s car”, and the association slow to dying electric vehicles with weakness set in.
Gasoline Car Contest
Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T may have cost a third less than an electric car, but people still needed to power it easily. Gas-powered cars benefited from the already existing refueling network, subsidized by the federal government and run by monopolies. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company gave gasoline-powered cars a “virtually unlimited area of operation, as the gasoline it runs on can be purchased at any drugstore in the country.” New York Times issued in 1900.
Once the gas-powered car became more affordable, the electric vehicle was doomed. The nail in the coffin came when gasoline-powered cars adopted electric ignition in 1912, which made it easier to start the vehicle. By the late 1920s, electric vehicle manufacturing was a dead industry.
What Electric Vehicles Need Today
The first electric cars encountered obstacles similar to those facing electric vehicles today: a lack of government support, a fueling network unable to compete with gasoline-powered vehicles, and a stigma of weakness. The obstacles were less technological than political, economic and cultural.