A Short History of Electric Vehicles

Most people probably think of the electric vehicle as being a pretty modern invention, but you may be surprised to know that the electric vehicle actually dates from as far back as the mid-1800s. Prototype electric vehicles such as electric model cars were already around in the late 1820s.

Until about 1900 the land speed record was held by an electric vehicle; before other engine technologies took the crown.

There was a lot of optimism about electric vehicles, but the practical issues they presented, using the primitive battery and motor technology of the time, were easily done away with by the internal combustion engine.

Today the world revolves around a fossil fuel economy, and internal combustion engines have benefited from more than a century of well-funded research and development. Work on electric transport has continued, supported by the benefits that other electrical applications have brought forward. Now, at the start of the 21st century, electric vehicles both small and large are finally becoming practical, but there’s been a long road from then until now.

Electric Choo Choos

Arguably, the most successful electric vehicles in history have been electric trains, either overland or in subways. Because trains don’t run freely but must run on a track, it is possible to provide them with a reliable source of electricity via overhead lines or an electrified third rail.

Electric cars and motorcycles have historically been nothing more than unreliable, short-range curiosities. Electric trains, on the other hand, gave the public its first taste of reliable and practical electric transport. These trains are quiet and clean. They’ve become so commonplace that we don’t think twice about the fact that they run on electricity at all.

The first-ever electric locomotive that we know of was built in 1837 by Robert Davidson. Unlike modern trains, this prototype was powered by an early battery known as a galvanic cell. Although this first train performed very well compared to steam-powered locomotives, the low power density of the galvanic cells made it impractical. The train was actually destroyed by railway workers who saw it as a threat to their livelihoods.

The first electric passenger train was presented in 1870, 33 years later. Siemens went on to open the world’s first electric tram in 1881. Oddly enough, it was the use of tunnels that really made electric trains popular, since smoke-belching trains were not exactly fun to ride in under those circumstances.

Today electric trains are some of the fastest vehicles on land, although technically the fastest electric trains hover, using magnetic levitation. The fastest maglev train at the time of writing can reach a mind blowing 268 miles per hour. The latest evolution of this concept, the largely theoretical hyperloop capsule, is designed to reach a top speed of 760 miles per hour.

Making Tesla Proud

Despite all the hybrid electric Prius thingies pottering around, it’s probably the electric cars from Elon Musk’s Tesla company that have really put the electric car back into the collective eye of the public.

As cool as a Prius is, Tesla’s cars are performance demons that are just plain fun to drive. Who cares if it takes a couple of hours to refuel when you can blast around in “ludicrous mode” when the batteries are full?

Despite this revival, and what seems like the inevitable rise of cars with electric motors, the story of the electric car has not exactly been a fairy tale. Still, you may be surprised at how much of modern electric vehicle technology already existed more than 100 years ago.

Tesla

Tesla Electric Car

Ahead of Their Time

After the first scale-model electric cars were made between 1828 and 1835, there was a stream of crude and impractical electric cars. It wasn’t until the 1870s that an electric car that was of actual use came into being.

Towards the end of the 19th century, practical electric carriages were invented. They sparked a public interest in the technology; one much wider than before. By the year 1900, electric cars were actually gaining popularity with urban users who appreciated the simplicity and lack of smelly smoke.

Believe it or not, during the first decade of the 20th century electric cars accounted for a third of traffic on U.S. roads. By this time the first gas-electric hybrid car had already been invented by none other than Ferdinand Porsche; it was known as the Lohner-Porsche Mixte.

Famous inventor Thomas Edison was so convinced that the electric car was the future that he spent considerable time trying to improve battery technology – the ever-present Achilles’ heel for these cars.

But then the Model T killed the electric car dead. In 1912 Ford brought an affordable and reliable car to the masses that outperformed electric cars in speed and range. The market spoke, and the age of the internal combustion engine truly got underway. By 1935 almost all road-going electric vehicles were gone.

In the second half of the 20th century, fuel prices began climbing and interest in electric vehicles slowly began to re-emerge. The moon landing made use of an electric moon buggy, putting the eyes of everyone on Earth back on electric cars.

By the mid-70s car makers were putting research money into a new generation of electric cars. After one or two electric car successes, the interest in them began to fade once again. For the next decade, until the early 1990s, very little happened in the electric car arena.

The 90s really got the ball rolling. We had the EV1 and the Prius come to market – two cars that are already iconic today.

Suddenly celebrities are driving hybrids and Silicon Valley companies like Tesla are getting into the game. After many false starts it seems that the time of the electric car has finally come.

Plane Crazy

Electric vehicles are not only poised to take over on land, but also in the sky. Experimental projects for flying electric vehicles have been going on since the 1970s. There are solar-powered autonomous aircraft that can stay aloft for weeks or months. More traditional aircraft powered by electricity are also in the cards, and even electric helicopters such as the Sikorsky Firefly. Don’t forget about all the drones we have flying around now as well. Remote aircraft have now either gone fully electric or use a hybrid system for more range, but when it comes to light drone aircraft, electric power seems to be the way to go.

A Sparky Future

It’s been a rough century or so for electric vehicles, but with advances in electric storage and generation far beyond what people of Edison’s time could imagine, it really seems as if the electric vehicle’s time has come.