Jedlik’s electric car was more of a toy, but an electric engine was used to propel it. Around the world, many people began to work on electric engines. Some of the more notable inventors included Thomas Davenport (United States), Sibrandus Stratingh (Netherlands), and Robert Anderson (Scotland). All of this work was taking place in the early to mid-1800s.

The earliest electric cars ran on batteries that could only be used one time. Once the electricity was used up, a brand-new battery had to be used. Because of this limitation, another group of inventors began to work on improved battery designs that allowed recharging (see Home School Enrichment July/August 2008, “The ‘Shocking’ Story of the Battery,” for more information). As the design of electric engines and batteries improved, so did the performance of electric cars. They began to travel faster (66 miles per hour in 1899) and for longer distances. Improvements in the design and manufacture of electric cars began to produce the first commercially available vehicles by the late 1800s.

By the early 1900s, electricity had been wired into most U.S. cities and many homes. Now the electric car started to gain acceptance. In 1899, some 90% of the taxicabs in New York City were electric. The taxis were built by the Philadelphia Electric Carriage and Wagon Company. During this time, cars operated on steam (about 40%), electricity (about 38%), and gasoline (the remaining 22%). By 1912, there were nearly 34,000 electric cars registered in the U.S. Imagine that: more cars running on electricity than on gasoline!

There were several reasons why people liked electric cars. Steam-powered cars required boilers that could take nearly an hour to heat up on cold days. Gasoline-powered cars were hard to start, noisy, and had gears that had to be shifted, which was a difficult task with early transmissions. Electric cars had a lot of appeal.

Have you ever heard the term “cranky”? It is used to describe someone who is irritable. The word was first used to describe the state of a person who was having serious trouble getting a car started by turning the “crank” that was needed to get the engine to fire. If they were having a bad day with the car, it showed in their attitude!

New York Citytaxicabs represented the first large-scale use of electric vehicles. Can you guess what other groups of users these vehicles appealed to? One group was doctors. If a doctor had to be somewhere fast for an emergency, the last thing he needed was to heat up a boiler or have problems getting his gas-powered car to start. The other group was women. Starting a car with a hand crank was no easy chore! Starting an electric car was easy, and there were no gears to shift. Most men did not like electric cars because they would be deemed feminine if they owned one. Men’s attitudes, being what they sometimes are, required that they go out and start their gas-powered vehicles the old-fashioned way: by using brute force.

Electric Cars on the Horizon

Electric cars went out of use when the electric ignition was introduced and gasoline cars no longer needed to be cranked. Today, electric cars are making a comeback. High gasoline prices have spurred manufacturers to look at alternatives for energy. As you can see, these “new ideas” for electric cars are not really new at all. In fact, it is more like people are returning back to the way things were in the early 1900s.

Although the electric car concept is not nearly as new as it may first appear, technology has changed a lot since the 1800s. Research and development focuses on making modern cars that run faster, travel farther, are safer, and are affordable to the general public. There will be a lot of innovative designs appearing in the coming years.

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