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Electric Car History: Starting from the Early Electric Cars of the 1800s

Electric cars, far from being a recent phenomenon, have a rich history that stretches back long before the days of Tesla and General Motors' EV1. From the earliest experiments in the 1830s to the modern advancements of today, the journey of the electric car is one filled with innovation and perseverance. Join us as we take a journey through time, exploring key milestones and forgotten gems in the history of electric vehicles.


History of Early Electric Cars of the 1800s

The history of electric cars begins in the early 19th century. Scottish inventor Robert Anderson is credited with creating the first electric carriage in the 1830s, powered by non-rechargeable batteries. Around the same time, Robert Davidson, another Scottish innovator, developed a small electric locomotive. Although these early experiments were groundbreaking, the limited capabilities of the batteries restricted their practical use.


The Rise of Rechargeable Batteries

It wasn't until the late 19th century that rechargeable batteries transformed electric cars into a viable transportation option. Thomas Parker in England and William Morrison in the United States were among the pioneers who showcased the potential of electric propulsion. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Morrison's electric wagon captured the public's attention with its six-passenger capacity and 14 mph top speed.


Key Milestones in the Late 19th Century:


  • 1830s-40s: Robert Anderson and Robert Davidson experiment with early electric carriages.

  • 1859: Gaston Planté invents the lead-acid battery, providing a significant advancement in battery technology.

  • 1890: William Morrison introduces the first electric car in the United States.

  • 1898: Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat sets the world record for the fastest electric vehicle, reaching 39.24 mph.


Commercial Success and Innovation:

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a surge in commercially viable electric vehicles. Companies like Electrobat and Columbia revolutionized urban transportation with electric taxis and carriages. Ransom Eli Olds and Ferdinand Porsche experimented with electric propulsion, and the Detroit Electric Company became known for its silent and city-friendly vehicles, popular among affluent urban dwellers.


Key Milestones in the Early 20th Century:

  • 1900: Ferdinand Porsche introduces the Lohner-Porsche Mixte, the world's first petrol-electric hybrid vehicle.

  • 1902: Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company launches electric cars and trucks.

  • 1914: Detroit Electric debuts its electric car powered by Thomas Edison's nickel-iron battery.

Milburn Electric

The Milburn Electric, produced from 1915 to 1923, stands out as one of the earliest examples of successful electric cars. These vehicles were recognized for their smooth, quiet operation and compact design, becoming a popular choice for urban transportation. The 1922 Milburn Electric, the most notable model in the series, combined attractive styling with practical design, which made it the pinnacle of early American electric cars. With lightweight construction and reliable performance, the Milburn Electric was favored by affluent customers for city driving and short trips.


Despite its success, the 1922 Milburn Electric represents the final evolution of early American all-electric cars, marking the end of an era for electric propulsion in the automotive industry. This classic electric car is now on display at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, offering visitors a glimpse into the history of electric vehicles and the remarkable engineering of the early 20th century.

Challenges:

The affordability and range of gasoline-powered vehicles, exemplified by Henry Ford's Model T, posed a significant threat to the electric car market. Innovations like the electric starter further cemented the dominance of gasoline engines, relegating electric vehicles to niche markets such as urban taxis and delivery vehicles.


Revivals and Resurgences:


In 1942, Gregoire’s small car, the “Tudor” had broke records for electric automobiles: 150 miles at an average speed of 27 miles per hour without recharging the batteries. During the war, when gasoline was not available, 150 cars were manufactured.


1966: The 1966 Chevrolet Electrovair II boasted 115 horsepower and was powered by a 532-volt silver-oxide battery pack located under the front hood. However, its limited range and the high cost and short lifespan of its batteries were significant drawbacks.


1971: The Tampa Bay Automobile museum in collaboration with the engineers at Polypack have modified a CGE Grégoire Electric to use a hydrogen fuel cell to keep the batteries charged. Hydrogen is stored in the black cylindrical tank behind the passenger seat. The fuel cell is in the stainless steel box behind the hydrogen tank and the fan at the rear vents the fuel cell.


1974: Sebring Vanguard introduces the CitiCar, one of the first mass-produced electric vehicles, contributing to the resurgence of electric cars.


1996: General Motors introduces the EV1, the first mass-produced electric vehicle of the modern era, marking a milestone in the rebirth of electric cars.



Modern Milestones:

The turn of the 21st century brought renewed interest in electric cars, fueled by advancements in battery technology and environmental awareness. Companies like Tesla Motors emerged as pioneers in the field, producing high-performance electric vehicles like the Roadster and Model S that challenged perceptions of electric cars as slow and impractical.


  • 2008: In 2003, engineers Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning established Tesla Motors with a focus on electric vehicles. Five years later, in 2008, Tesla introduced its inaugural electric car, the Roadster.

  • 2016: The Chevrolet Bolt EV is unveiled and becomes Motor Trend's Car of the Year, further accelerating the transition to electric vehicles in the automotive industry.

  • 2021: The Rivian R1T takes the crown as the first electric truck to take up space in consumer driveways, with the startup company delivering its first vehicles in fall 2021.


As we look ahead, electric cars promise to play a crucial role in transforming the automotive industry. With advancements in battery technology and a growing focus on sustainability, the history of electric cars is far from over—it's only just beginning.


References:

Title: Worth the Watt: A Brief History of the Electric Car, 1830 to Present

Author: Kevin A. Wilson

Publication Date: March 31, 2023

Source: Car and Driver


Title: The History of the Electric Car: A Timeline

Author: David M. Kuchta

Updated Date: January 13, 2022

Source: Treehugger


Title: The Story of the 1966 Chevrolet Electrovair, the Electric Corvair You Never Knew Existed

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