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The Electric Car Era - 1890 to 1919

History Index
Last Reviewed: September 26, 2016
1921 Detroit Electric Touring Car

1921 Detroit Electric Touring Car *

The Electric Car Era occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, concurrent with the Brass Car Era and beginning of the Antique Car Era. Electric cars were being built in Europe in the early 1830s and Thomas Davenport built one of the first electric cars in the U.S. in 1834, but they were not commonly used here until the 1890s. They were invented long after Cugnot built the first steam powered car in 1769, but before the Duryea brothers produced the first gasoline powered car in 1893.

By the end of the 19th century electric cars were more popular than either steam or gasoline because steam engines were complicated and took too long to warm up and gasoline engines were hard to start and required a fuel that was hard to come by. It could be said that A. L. Ryker and William Morrison started the electric car trend when they built a six-passenger vehicle in 1891, but of course it depended on the science behind the use of electricity that came from men like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Tesla was an Austrian who patented the first alternating current (AC) induction motor in the late 1800s and Edison pioneered low voltage direct current (DC) electricity because he felt it was safer. They were often at odds with each other.

1900 Riker Victoria

1900 Riker Victoria

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Of course the electric car depended on rechargeable batteries and they came about after Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist, invented what is known as the Voltaic Pile. It was a stack of zinc and copper discs in a sealed tube containing an electrolyte to encourage the flow of electrical current. In 1836 John Daniell, a British chemist, improved the Voltaic Pile by using copper sulfate and zinc sulfate, which is the principle of today's dry cell batteries. However those early batteries were not rechargeable and it wasn't until 1859 that Gaston Plante, a French physicist, invented the first rechargeable lead-acid battery that is in use today.

Compared to steam and gasoline, electric vehicle were a panacea. Anybody could start and operate them without worrying about getting hurt or ruining their clothes and they made no noise or pollution. Their only limitations was the limited access to electricity to recharge the batteries and their speed; because they had no transmission and topped out at about 30 miles per hour. Rural America lacked electricity and decent roads at the time so that wasn't the market for early electric vehicles. By the turn of the century major cities, on the other hand, had both electricity and decent streets making electric vehicles ideal for local delivery trucks, buses and taxicabs. Early electric vehicle included two, three and four-wheel designs with a wide variety of bodies.

1900 American Dos-A-Dos

1900 American Dos-A-Dos

Henry Ford owned an electric car before he built his famous "Model-T" Ford and had it not been for the influence of John D. Rockefeller, who was looking for a market for the oil from his wells, they may have survived. In 1912 30 percent of American vehicles were electric powered but Ford's success at producing an affordable car that could go anywhere was irresistible to the masses. And in 1913 when Charles Kettering used the rechargeable battery to power a starting motor, thus eliminating all the danger and frustrations of using a hand crank, the electric car industry could no longer compete. By that time gasoline was cheap and commonplace and roads were gradually improving throughout the country. It wasn't until the 1960s that electric vehicles were reintroduced as an alternative to noise and air pollution.

* Pictures are from ads on and may not be used without the vehicle owner's permission.