The Electric Shock: Electric Cars Pre-Date the Civil War!

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Talk about an old idea. The first electric cars hit the scene way back in the early 1830s, 30 years before the Civil War (for the record, they're also older than the Eiffel Tower, Joan Rivers and sliced bread). In fact, the electric car was actually the first popularized car. In the year 1900, of the 4,192 cars produced in the United States, 28% of them were electric. And in 1903 electric cars outsold gasoline powered cars, representing about 1/3 of the cars found on the road in New York City, Boston, and Chicago.

So what made electric cars so popular? Basically, the reasons for its success are the same reasons people are taking a second look at electric cars today: they were quieter, smoother and easier to drive (gasoline-powered cars required gear changing, whereas electric cars did not). And on top of that, they didn't emit noxious smells or gases.

The Flattery for Batteries

The first electric carriage was created by Robert Anderson of Scotland in the 1830s. It was powered by non rechargeable primary cells -- basically, a battery. Prior to that, cars were powered by steam engines. France improved the storage battery and thereafter the electric car flourished in France and Great Britain in the late 1800s, and in the US in the early 1900s.

Since the transistor based technology limited the cars' speed to about 20 mph, in the US the electric car was marketed strictly to high-class individuals as a town car. It was also marketed as suitable for women due to its ease and safety of operation, whereas the gasoline powered car was dangerous and difficult to start. Though slow and powered by a non-rechargeable battery, the electric car's technology was promising. In 1900, the first speed record was set at 66 mph by a vehicle powered by two 12 volt motors, and the first distance record was set by an electric vehicle that drove 180 miles on a single battery charge.

How the Electric Became Endangered

So what exactly happened to cars? The decline of the electric can be attributed to two individuals "“ Henry Ford and Anthony Lucas. Henry Ford came into the picture in 1903 and with his quote "I will build a car for the great multitude," he did just that. In 1908 he perfected the mass production of internal combustion engines. The Model T could be assembled in only ninety-three minutes! Of course, that meant gasoline powered cars became more affordable for consumers. In 1912, an electric car sold for $1750 while a gas guzzler sold for $650. Additionally, Cadillac simplified the once dangerous and difficult task of starting up the internal combustion engine. As cities grew, the need for longer-distance driving grew and batteries just didn't cut it. Electric car sales peaked in 1912, and declined to obsoleteness shortly thereafter.

Of course, assembly lines and combustion engines weren't the only reason that the electric went extinct; oil also played a huge factor. When Anthony Lucas struck black gold at Spindletop in 1901, US oil production tripled overnight, making gasoline extremely abundant and affordable. This only boosted the case for gas powered internal combustion engines.

It's been 100 years since Ford perfected the production of the internal combustion engine, and gasoline powered cars still dominate the automobile market. However, unlike Spindletop in 1901, it seems the only thing skyrocketing today is the price of oil. These days, even Ford Motor Co is playing with electric cars- an ironic coda considering just how hard the company worked to outpace the technology all those years ago.

June 13, 2008 - 7:30am
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