The Early Electric Automobile in Context

Version 3.2


Before 1900, North America was a different world.  Large vehicles, such as ships and railroad engines, were powered by steam. Most short distance land transport was motivated by muscle; provided by horses, mules, people, oxen, and such.  Only the wealthy “Carriage Trade” could afford private horses in the cities, everyone else walked, rode a bicycle, took a streetcar (most were electric by 1900) or hired a horse-drawn cab.   City horses usually belonged to commercial enterprises and were a significant source of pollution: whether from tons of feces spewing stench and health hazards, tens of thousands of gallons of urine, or the clatter of steel shoes on cobblestones.  All but a few assumed the horse had a permanent relationship with man for personal transport.


Chicago presented the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.  A third of the United States’ population attended, and were dazzled by grand displays of electric power.  The Fair was illuminated by over a hundred and twenty thousand electric lights, and used three times the generating power of the entire city of Chicago.  An elevated electric train circled the grounds, electric launches plied the lakes, and there was even an electric moving sidewalk.

Nearly lost in the spectacle were a few stationary displays of internal combustion vehicles from Benz and Daimler of Germany. There was also an electric cab prototype from London.   A rather clumsy electric wagon––built in Des Moines, Iowa in 1890 by an eccentric battery inventor named William Morrison––was more noticeable, as it ran around the grounds transporting VIPs; often driven by the teenaged Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).


Stationary explosion engines had been available commercially since the 1870s, and ran on a variety of fuels, usually gasoline (sold in cans).  These engines were marketed for running machine tools, small mills, and generators. They were generally built with heavy bases, which were bolted to the floor.  These gasoline engines typically had one cylinder, a large flywheel, and were designed to run all day, they rarely produced more than five horsepower, commonly one to three, and had a top speed under 800 rpm, which is just idle speed in a modern car. At that time, a workweek was six ten or twelve-hour days.


In 1895, Chicago hosted a highly publicized motor vehicle race.  As many as ninety-two entrants declared intention to participate, of which six became actual contestants; four were internal combustion, two were electric.  This contest got people thinking past the horse, and caught the interest of professional machinists and backyard inventors around the country.  Only a handful of German and French automobiles had been manufactured for sale.  American production began in 1896, often by former bicycle makers, as the next hot consumer product.  Light, bicycle-based motor vehicles, targeted at affluent young sportsmen, were a natural progression.


Business likes predictable investments. Horses predictably ate and drank a lot, even when not working, and, with daily labor in the city, had a short working life. Horses were susceptible to unpredictable epizootics, particularly when large numbers were stabled close together.  Taxicab and delivery companies were forced to keep hundreds of horses in close quarters, and this made them particularly susceptible to a deadly bacterial infection called Glanders, which was endemic among many horse populations.  Breakouts increased dramatically between 1892 and 1898.  In 1896 a Glanders epizootic decimated the horse population of Paris.  Even weather could ruin a stable, a ten-day heat wave, in August of 1896, roasted New York City, killing thirteen hundred people.  Thousands more equine draft animals died, and their rotting bodies littered the streets.  It’s hard to run a transportation company with dead horses.


When transit barons looked at alternatives to the horse, they had several alternatives.   Steam, internal combustion, and electricity, were the candidates.  The most mature motor technology was steam.  Although steam engines had excellent control and torque characteristics as traction motors, steam boilers were inefficient, potentially explosive, and hard to scale down.  The Stanley twins worked out most of these problems by 1897, and by 1900 steam dominated personal motor vehicle sales.  The initial advantages of steam were a lower price and steady reliable power, compared to internal combustion.  


The internal combustion engines of the time were weak, complicated, unreliable, often stalled, were hard to start or control, and required gear change and clutch assemblies.  The dozens of engine parts were individually cast, forged, and machined by experienced workmen.  As automobiles, they were more like riding lawnmowers with bicycle wheels than any car on the road today.  By 1904, newer gasoline engines with better carburetion and high voltage spark plugs overtook steam car sales, though the Stanley and White steam cars remained fairly popular through 1908.


Electricity was a brilliant success for city and suburban rail cars (very few of which depended on a battery), and, in 1896, two electric cars, a Riker Trap and Morris & Salom’s Electrobat II, defeated several third-generation Duryea gasoline cars in a series of 5-mile heats on a horse track in Rhode Island.  Morris & Salom took their winning design for a light electric vehicle and started a small cab company in New York City, with thirteen vehicles.  The concept also caught on in London, Paris, and Berlin.  Major transit moguls jumped in, and bet tens of millions of dollars on these battery electric cabs as the viable alternative to horses.  The enormous capital inflow, and build-out of over a thousand electric cabs, created a brief bubble in the number of electric vehicles, relative to the other modes.  Due to limitations presented by heavy low-capacity batteries, most of these enterprises had failed worldwide by 1903, though a handful of “lead cabs” ran through 1922.


It is customary to record statistical mileposts at century points, but statistics of vehicles on the road in 1900 are misleading, as this was during the brief peak of the electric cab bubble.  As many as 70% of the vehicles registered as electric automobiles were taxicabs for hire, predominantly in New York City, but also in Philadelphia, Chicago, and other major cities.  Many sources break the ratio of vehicles in 1900 into equal thirds; or 40% steam, 38% electric, and 22% internal combustion, but these figures were highly skewed by the battery cabs.


By 1901 production numbers for Columbia/EVC, the principal maker of electric cabs, were not even in the top ten. Locomobile (steam) doubled sales to 1,500; Stanley (steam), 800; Winton, 700; Oldsmobile, 425; White (steam), 193; Autocar, 140; Knox, 100; and Packard, 81.  A more meaningful snapshot of the period might be found in New York State’s auto registrations as of April 1902: which were; 55% steam, 33% gasoline, and 12% electric.

With the exception of 1907 & 1913 (recession years), production of electrics increased annually until 1917.  Steam and electric vehicles both lost market share to the gasoline cars, which had explosive sales growth, initially led by the 1901-1904 curved-dash Olds.


Both Riker and Baker electric cars set land speed records from 1898-1903 (not officially timed), steam cars in 1903-1906. Gasoline internal-combustion cars dominated land speed records after that, until the gas turbine and jet cars showed up after WWII.


By 1903, most design concepts that are thought of as modern had already been invented.  These included hybrids (both series and parallel), dynamic and regenerative braking, all-wheel drive, bio-Diesel, hub motors, power steering, continuously variable transmissions, fuel injection, pre-compression (aka “super-charging”), air cooling, boxer engines, and all-steel body construction.  There were a few coin operated electric vehicle charging “hydrants,” near Madison Square Garden.  Even fuel cells had been demonstrated, but material and production technologies just weren’t developed well enough to make most of these ideas practicable. Autonomous driving was left to horses on milk delivery routes.


In 1903, Ford appeared in the top ten for the first time.  In collaboration with the Dodge brothers, he ramped up production to 1,700 units. He was still far behind Olds, whose little curved dash one-cylinder car, for $150 less, sold 4,000 units, or Henry Leland’s more refined Cadillac, which sold 1,864. Locomobile disappeared from the high volume category as they dropped steam for internal combustion, under the influence of Andrew Riker. Their steam patents were sold back to the Stanley twins.


Where electric power distribution was available, the only downside to an electric car was the battery.  A full size lead-acid battery, in a typical electric coach of the mid-teens, cost more than a model T Ford, held the energy equivalent of one or two gallons of gasoline, filled all of the space under the front and rear hoods, needed replacement every 4-8 years, and weighed about a ton, even when “empty.”


By 1908 electric car production shifted from light open runabouts to stately weatherproof Coupés, which were like parlors on wheels.  An electric car was the civilized alternative to the horse; they became identified with affluent women of independent spirit.  Electric Coupés were easy to drive, conducive to conversation, and allowed the occupants to reach their destination clean and unruffled.  They were characteristically enclosed and lockable, giving their occupants security from both weather and people.  Most models were designed to be driven by the owner, saving the cost of a chauffeur, who was likely to report the day’s travels to the husband.


These cars were designed and manufactured by men, and most of the companies made and marketed roadster models targeted at their own peer group.  Regardless of repeated attempts at a more sporting image, women were the main users of electric cars, and they wanted Coupés.


1910-1912 saw a handful of new electric car makers come to market, with the recently perfected motor and drive systems, expiration of basic patents, and the re-introduced nickel-steel Edison alkaline battery; hyped as the savior of the electric car.  These newcomers ran into strong headwinds, with the introduction of dependable automotive starting and lighting systems for gasoline cars in 1912, and a sharp recession, compounded by severe mid-west weather, in 1913. Sales still grew, but at a slower pace.

 In January of 1913 “The Automobile” published their tally of vehicles made in the US. They counted 340,746 gasoline cars and 27,909 trucks; compared to 8,013 electric cars, 850 steam cars, and 730 electric trucks.


On display at the Chicago Auto Show in February of 1913 were 30 electric Broughams (a large Coupé), 8 Coupés, and 4 Runabouts. Representing gasoline cars, there were 153 open Touring cars, 36 Roadsters, 20 Limousines, 13 Coupés, and 2 Landaulets. No steam cars were shown.


Electrics remained the majority of enclosed cars through the mid teens.  Sales for the big four electric car brands were strong through 1917, when manufacturing became dominated by military priorities. New battery sets became even more expensive, as lead was in critical need for bullets. The Edison battery was diverted into submarines from mid-1915 to January of 1916, when a fatal explosion, from out-gassing of hydrogen and oxygen during rapid charging, hurt the battery’s reputation.


Many electric cars were junked at this time as the demand for commodities skyrocketed for the Great War in Europe.  The scrap value of an electric car, made with lead, copper, and aluminum, was much higher than gasoline cars, which were mostly steel and wood.


Enclosed electric cars were popular for city use, and were in such a different market niche from the gasoline touring cars that several of the makers of those cars, and many captains of the petroleum industries, bought them, usually for their wives. These included Henry Ford (a new Detroit Electric every two years from 1908-1914) and two generations of Rockefellers. There is no evidence that electric car production of this era was intentionally suppressed by the gasoline competition.


After 1920, gasoline cars became much more user-friendly.  They were started with electric motors, and had better transmissions, carburetion, and clutches.  These factors mitigated the advantages of electric cars, leaving them to small market niches, such as factories, underground mining, and golf courses.


The Second World War dealt a final blow to early electric car production, much as the first one gravely wounded it.  Gasoline rationing saw some classics back on the road, but the shadow of the War left little remnant of production.


The first era of the electric car had a good run, but went dormant waiting for a better battery. Hybrid and pure electric cars were rescued after 1999 by the Nickel-Metal Hydride battery, and, subsequently, by lithium batteries.