This year, the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric will hit showroom floors across America, becoming the first mass-marketed all electric cars of the century. But they were not the first to be invented – the technology behind electric vehicles is actually much, much older than many people realize.
The mid nineteenth century saw a steep rise in the study of electricity, with crude electric motors developed as early as 1828 by Hungarian Physicist Anyos Jedlik. His contemporaries with similar inventions included the British William Sturgeon and Americans Emily and Thomas Davenport. At the time, trains were widely used, and most electric vehicle concepts came in the form of passenger trains that ran on electrified rails. An electrified rail was needed, because batteries were not yet rechargeable. The AC electric motor most commonly used today was invented by the visionary Nikola Tesla in 1888. Today, a small electric car firm in California is named after him.
In 1859, French inventor Gaston Plante produced the first rechargeable, lead-acid battery by taking two thin sheets of lead, rolling them up with a sheet of linen, and submerging them in a glass jar of acid. Another French inventor, Camille Alphonse Faure, developed a more reliable model in 1881, and this was widely used in electric cars of the day.
England and France were quickest to embrace electric car technology. In 1867, Austrian inventor Franz Kravogl unveiled an electric motorcycle at the World Exposition in Paris. Paris also saw the debut of French inventor Gustave Trouve’s three-wheeled electric automobile at the 1881 International Exhibition of Electricity. By the end of the century, European electrics were the fastest vehicles on the planet. In 1899, engineer Camille Jenatzy set a new land speed record of sixty-five miles an hour in his rocket-shaped electric car, Jamais Contente. Around this time, Ferdinand Porsche developed a record-setting electric automobile with all-wheel drive. Each wheel was powered by an individual electric motor. Ironically, this is how many electric and hybrid concepts are designed today.
The aforementioned American scientists Emily and Thomas Davenport were the first in putting an electric motor into a car, but their automotive and industrial motors required non-rechargeable batteries at the time, and the Davenports went bankrupt. In 1891, William Morrison developed an electric, six-seat wagon. It’s top speed? Fourteen miles an hour. Electric firms like Columbia and Edison took up electric car projects in the following years. Edison was a close friend of Henry Ford, and Ford promised an Edison powered electric vehicle, but the project lost momentum when a dispute over battery use arose.
Worldwide, electric car projects have lain mostly dormant for the better part of a century. This may be the year they return in force.
Miles Walker is a freelance writer and blogger who usually compares car insurance deals over at CarinsuranceComparison.Org.