The automobile was the obvious technology of the future. It had been forecast and developed for nearly a century before mass production. Yet when the patent application of future Congressman Nathan Read, an early steamboat developer in Connecticut who proposed a steam-powered automobile in 1790s, was read aloud in the House of Representatives, members struggled to suppress laughter. A century later some practical vehicles entered the market. The path was trod in fits and starts. In 1835 Thomas Davenport of Vermont built the first rotary electric motor which pulled 31-36 kg carriages at 5 km/h. In the late 1830s Robert Davidson of Scotland built a carriage powered by batteries and a motor, and later an electric coach, the Galvani, running on rail tracks. In 1851, Charles Page built an electric locomotive reaching a speed of 30 km/h. Those experiments ended without widespread market success. In parallel with steam and electric experiments, the Internal Combustion Engine(ICE) was patented in 1860 by Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who applied a coal-gas and air burning version to his three-wheeled Hippomobile. Nikolaus Otto developed his engine in the 1870s and Karl Benz used Otto’s engine to power a 600 watt (0.8 horsepower) three-wheel carriage in 1885. While today, the automobile is widespread and mostly employs the internal combustion or diesel engine, that technological outcome was not obvious to many of those in the field as late as 1900.
The electric grid, developed by Edison and others, was necessary for practical electrical transportation. Electricity was first widely applied in transportation to the streetcar. By 1879 Siemens and Halske built a 2.6 km line in Berlin. Battery trolleys were tested in early 1880s in places like the Leland Avenue Railway in Philadelphia, but by 1887, a New York financial syndicate funded Sprague Electric Railroad and Motor Company to build a 19.2 km line in Richmond, Virginia. Over the next three decades trolleys exploded across US cities. The electric streetcar, and other electric railways, transmitted power to the vehicle via a cable, a technology not suited for the automobile.
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition displayed six automobiles. The only one from the US, by William Morrison of Iowa, was electric. Yet the energy density of the battery remained the principal constraint on the electric vehicle’s market share. By the turn of the century, range and the energy per unit weight of battery compared with gasoline engines were already defined as key weaknesses by the best engineering talent of the time.
Battery-powered vehicles have more limited range (distance before recharging/refueling) than gasoline-powered vehicles due to energy density. The limits to battery technology result from battery weight. Each additional battery reduces the effectiveness of all the others, as they must spend some of their stored energy moving around other batteries instead of the rest of the car and passenger. Diminishing returns set in quickly. (The same issue affects liquid fuel of course, but it is not as severe since the energy density is higher).
While longer distance touring was a relatively small market, people consider the extreme use for the vehicle they buy, not the average, hence the personal trucks we see on urban and suburban streets. A vehicle must be usable in a maximal number of conditions. People imagined traveling longer distances than an EV could run. Other problems were the under-developed electric grid (as late as 1900 only 5 percent of factory power was electric) and lack of charging stations, especially at homes.
The plug to connect the car battery to a wall socket was not developed until 1901, prior batteries had to be removed from vehicles, no trivial task. While some electric utilities encouraged EVs and helped charge and maintain them at central stations, promoting local EV sales, most utilities saw these customers as nuisances rather than a source of business. Range (c. 1901) was about 4 hours, so charging was a frequent event. Fast charging (a charging time of one or two hours was considered fast) deteriorated the batteries. People thought of solutions. For instance, a charging hydrant, dubbed an “electrant.” located every few blocks was proposed, but never implemented, to permit travelers to pull over and pay for a metered amount of electricity. These ideas have been reappeared in recent decades as people seek to solve the same problems with electrics. Again, the number of charging stations remains quite limited, as no one wants to invest in a network of charging stations until there are many plug-in electrics requiring charges, and few will buy plug-in electrics if the cost and convenience does not match its technological competitors.
Another concept, developed by L.R. Wallis in 1900 was to have a parent battery company, from which batteries would be leased, and then swapped out when needing recharging for already charged batteries. This idea has been revived with Shai Agassi’s company Better Place in the 2000s, which hoped to develop a network of battery exchange centers, before entering bankruptcy. Similarly, electric garages, modeled on livery stables (for horses) were established to limit the owner’s need to deal with the difficulties of charging and maintaining the car.
While range and charging issues were obvious downsides, the primary advantages of electric vehicles at the time had to do with user interface. Charles Kettering had yet to develop the self-starter, so gasoline engines required the user to get out and crank. This was a non-starter for upper-income women, who thus preferred electric vehicles. EVs were often marketed to women, but this feminizing of the product may have discouraged men. An emerging middle class of urban professionals, managers, and white-collar workers formed a market for a new type of transportation.
The best-selling Oldsmobile sold only 425 vehicles in 1900. The market was still minuscule, but growing exponentially. Detroit in 1900 was much like Silicon Valley in the 1970s, with its HomeBrew Computing Club that begat Apple Computer and Microsoft. By 1912 Model T sales reached 82,388, in 1914: 200,000, in 1915: 400,000. Despite Edison’s encouragement of Ford’s gasoline-powered car, as noted in the opening quote, later Edison and Ford worked together in a failed attempt to bring about an electric car that was competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles.
In 1900 and 1905 the 1,200 electrics sold were fewer than 10 percent of all vehicle sales. Ultimately EVs fell further and further behind as economies of scale drove down the relative cost of its competitors, attracting a greater and greater share of consumers. Like Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), EVs were rising in sales, but at a much more modest pace, growing to only 6,000 vehicles in 1912.
Because of the difficulty consumers had with charging, Salom and Morris of the Electric Storage Battery (ESB) Company proposed a fleet of rental cars (an antecedent to car sharing), where professional would charge and maintain the vehicles. Individuals would still rent or lease a particular car. However, this failed to get critical mass, and required picking up the car, rather than storing it at home. In the end this became a fleet of cabs, where instead of recharging batteries in the vehicle, batteries would be swapped in and out, and charged (slowly) out of the vehicle.
Owner of New York’s Metropolitan Street Railway Company, Henry Melville Whitney consolidated the electric vehicle industry beginning in 1898, acquiring ESB, combining with Pope, and absorbing the Riker company, with the aim of establishing a fleet of 15,000 electric cabs to serve urban America. This “Lead Cab Trust” began to fail when the batteries, designed for smoother running streetcars or stationary operations did not do well on bumpy road surfaces and the frequent charging and discharging use of cab service, rather than the more sedate private ownership. Batteries deteriorated with use along with age.
The Edison Storage Battery Company aimed to develop a nickel-iron alkaline battery to replace the lead-acid battery. Edison’s competitor, ESB, tried to perfect the lead acid battery. The New York Electric Vehicle Transportation Company, part of EVC (the Lead Cab Trust) was probably the largest consumer of such batteries. It also developed its own central station and substation, and started running electric buses on Fifth Avenue as well as other routes. Other subsidiaries of the Trust fared less well, the New England and Illinois branches of EVTC folded in 1901. Edison hyped his battery for years, but it was not widely used once it came to market, as the cost-energy density tradeoff never worked favorably.
The self-starter for the automobile was modeled on the newly motorized cash register, by National Cash Register engineer Charles Kettering. His company DELCO was acquired by General Motors. This seemingly modest innovation made the gasoline powered automobile usable by those without the strength to turn the crank, and thus as easy to start as an electric. After Kettering, the automobile become an electric system in miniature: Its generator (with the battery) was the central station, which distributed current through a network for uses like starting the car, but also for headlights, and later radios and other purposes.Battery makers thus boomed not from selling batteries to makers of EVs but from selling to makers of gasoline-powered cars containing an electric self-starter.
It would be nearly a century before EVs became popular again.
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