Why weren’t cars electric from the start?

Excerpted from A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Tom Standage.

Much of the early enthusiasm for the automobile stemmed from its promise to solve the problems associated with horse-drawn vehicles, including noise, traffic congestion, and accidents. The fact that cars failed on each of these counts was tolerated because they offered so many other benefits, including eliminating the pollution—most notably, horse manure—that had dogged urban thoroughfares for centuries.

But in doing away with one set of environmental problems, cars introduced a whole set of new ones. The pollutants they emit are harder to see than horse manure but are no less problematic. These include particulate matter, such as the soot in vehicle exhaust, which can penetrate deep into the lungs; volatile organic compounds that irritate the respiratory system and have been linked to several kinds of cancer; nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide; and greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, that contribute to climate change. Cars, trucks, and buses collectively produce about one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. Reliance on fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel has also had far-reaching geopolitical ramifications, as much of the world became dependent on oil from the Middle East during the 20th century.

None of this could have been foreseen at the dawn of the automobile age. Or could it? Some people did raise concerns about the sustainability of powering cars using nonrenewable fossil fuels, and the reliability of access to such fuels. Today, electric cars, charged using renewable energy, are seen as the logical way to address these concerns. But the debate about the merits of electric cars turns out to be as old as the automobile itself.

In 1897 the bestselling car in the United States was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia. Electric models were outselling both steam- and gasoline-powered ones. By 1900 sales of steam vehicles had taken a narrow lead: That year 1,681 steam vehicles, 1,575 electric vehicles, and 936 petrol-powered vehicles were sold. Only in 1903 did petrol-powered vehicles take the lead for the first time, with the success of the Oldsmobile Curved Dash. In Europe, petrol-powered vehicles had swiftly established their dominance in the late 1890s, prompting one American observer to declare that the “rest of the world appears to have gone daft on gasoline.” In America, by contrast, the debate about the relative merits of the different forms of propulsion went on well into the first decade of the 20th century. “It must be remembered that the electric motor, the steam engine, and the gas engine have all been proven successful, and that an automobile made by a well-known concern and fitted with any one of these three types of motive power is a practical motor vehicle,” noted an American writer in 1901. So how close a race was it really, and why did gasoline-powered vehicles ultimately prevail in America, too?

Articles assessing the merits of the three technologies generally agreed that electric vehicles were cleaner, quieter, and more reliable than the alternatives and were also simpler to operate. But their range was limited to around 30 miles on a single charge, recharging was slow, and they had trouble negotiating rough roads outside big cities. Steamers had a longer range than electrics and had no difficulty climbing hills or carrying large loads. But their long-term prospects were limited. They were complicated to operate (requiring special licenses in some states), needed refilling with water every 20 or 30 miles, produced clouds of steam that hampered visibility, and were slow to start because they needed to build up a head of steam first. (They could at least use existing roadside troughs that supplied water to horses.) Gasoline-powered vehicles based on internal combustion engines were noisy and smelly, difficult to start, and less reliable than the alternatives, at least to begin with. Albert Pope, founder of Pope Manufacturing and maker of the bestselling Columbia electric vehicle, insisted, “No one will buy a carriage that has to have all that greasy machinery in it.” But although they were complicated and temperamental, gasoline vehicles had the advantage of greater range because gasoline was widely sold at general supply stores, initially as a cleaning solvent and then as a fuel. Each technology had pros and cons, but given the considerable disadvantages of steam power, it came down to a contest between electric- and gasoline-powered cars.

Electric vehicles had a clear edge in fleets. Their cleanliness, quietness, and reliability made them ideally suited for urban use, their limited range was not a problem because most urban trips were short, and they could be recharged at a central depot overnight. Accordingly, electric vehicles found use as taxicabs in several cities, including New York, Berlin, and Amsterdam, around the turn of the 20th century. Berlin’s fire department chief, deeming internal combustion engines too unreliable, replaced horse-drawn fire engines with electric ones in 1908, prompting his counterparts in several other German cities to follow suit. Electric buses and delivery trucks were adopted in parts of America, France, and Germany. “Growth of Electric Commercial Trucks: Efficiency and Economy of Vehicles Forcing Business Men to Supplant Horse-Drawn Wagons,” declared a New York Times headline in 1910. “Business men are no longer sentimental about the horse and are now more sensitive about their better friends, dollars and cents,” the paper reported. Electric vehicles, it noted, could reduce haulage costs by 15 percent to 40 percent compared with horse-drawn wagons.

Perhaps the most remarkable example, to modern eyes, of how things might have worked out differently for electric vehicles is the story of the Electrobat, an electric taxicab that briefly flourished in the late 1890s. The Electrobat had been created in Philadelphia in 1894 by Pedro Salom and Henry Morris, two scientist-inventors who were enthusiastic proponents of electric vehicles. In a speech in 1895, Salom derided “the marvelously complicated driving gear of a gasoline vehicle, with its innumerable chains, belts, pulleys, pipes, valves and stopcocks … Is it not reasonable to suppose, with so many things to get out of order, that one or another of them will always be out of order?” The two men steadily refined their initial design, eventually producing a carriagelike vehicle that could be controlled by a driver on a high seat at the back, with a wider seat for passengers in the front. In 1897 Morris and Salom launched a taxi service in Manhattan with a dozen vehicles, serving a thousand passengers in their first month of operation. But the cabs had limited range and their batteries took hours to recharge. So Morris and Salom merged with another firm, the Electric Battery Company. Its engineers had devised a clever battery-swapping system, based at a depot at 1684 Broadway, that could replace an empty battery with a fully charged one in seconds, allowing the Electrobats to operate all day.

In 1899 this promising business attracted the attention of William Whitney, a New York politician and financier who had made a fortune investing in electric streetcars. He dreamed of establishing a monopoly on urban transport and imagined fleets of electric cabs operating in major cities around the world, providing a cleaner, quieter alternative to horse-drawn vehicles. Instead of buying cars, which were still far beyond the means of most people, city dwellers would use electric taxis and streetcars to get around. But realizing this vision would mean building Electrobats on a much larger scale. So Whitney and his friends teamed up with Pope, maker of the bestselling Columbia electric vehicle. They formed a new venture around the Electrobat operation, called the Electric Vehicle Company, and embarked on an ambitious expansion plan. EVC raised capital to build thousands of electric cabs and opened offices in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey, and Newport. In 1899 it was briefly the largest automobile manufacturer in America.

But its taxi operations outside New York were badly run and failed to make money. Repeated reorganizations and recapitalizations prompted accusations that EVC was an elaborate financial swindle. The industry journal the Horseless Age, a strong advocate of petrol-powered vehicles, attacked the firm as a would-be monopolist and said electric vehicles were doomed to fail. When news emerged that EVC had obtained a loan fraudulently, its share price plunged from $30 to 75 cents, forcing the firm to start closing its regional offices. The Horseless Age savored its collapse and cheered its failure to “force” electric vehicles on a “credulous world.” But other observers saw things differently. In 1902 the Electrical World and Engineer noted, “The dismal failure of public electric automobiles in several cities tended to give the motive power a black eye irrespective of its real merits.” In retrospect, EVC’s business model might have worked, and urban transport might have taken a very different path. But instead the dubious behavior of EVC’s bosses discredited electric vehicles at the height of their popularity.

In the years that followed, as more people bought private cars, electric vehicles took on a new connotation: as women’s cars. This association arose because they were suitable for short, local trips, did not require hand cranking to start or gearshifting to operate, and were extremely reliable by virtue of their simple design. (It is tempting to ask what Bertha Benz would have made of this logic.) As an advertisement for Babcock Electric vehicles put it in 1910, “She who drives a Babcock Electric has nothing to fear.” The implication was that women, unable to cope with the complexities of driving and maintaining petrol vehicles, should buy electric vehicles instead. Men, by contrast, were assumed to be more capable mechanics, for whom greater complexity and lower reliability were prices worth paying for powerful, manly petrol vehicles with superior performance and range. It was the medieval arrangement of horse-riding men and carriage-riding women all over again.

Advertisements for the Baker Electric depicted women at the wheel of its vehicles, with one driver dropping her husband off at a golf course. Cole, another manufacturer, claimed its electric cars were “the choice of American womanhood.” Two manufacturers, Detroit Electric and Waverly Electric, launched models in 1912 that were said to have been completely redesigned to cater to women. As well as being electric, they were operated from the back seat, with a rear-facing front seat, to allow the driver to face her passengers—but also making it difficult to see the road. For steering they provided an old-fashioned tiller, rather than a wheel, which was meant to be less strenuous but was also less precise and more dangerous. Henry Ford bought his wife, Clara, a Detroit Electric rather than one of his own Model T’s. Some men may have liked that electric cars’ limited range meant the independence granted to their drivers was tightly constrained.

By focusing on women, who were a small minority of drivers—accounting for 15 percent of drivers in Los Angeles in 1914, for example, and 5 percent in Tucson—makers of electric cars were tacitly conceding their inability to compete with petrol-powered cars in the wider market. That year, Henry Ford confirmed rumors that he was developing a low-cost electric car in conjunction with the inventor Thomas Edison. “The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of light weight which would operate for long distances without recharging,” he told the New York Times, putting his finger on the electric car’s primary weakness. But the car was repeatedly delayed, as Edison tried and failed to develop an alternative to the heavy, bulky lead-acid batteries used to power electric cars. Eventually the entire project was quietly abandoned.

The failure of electric vehicles in the early 20th century, and the emergence of the internal combustion engine as the dominant form of propulsion, has much to do with liquid fuel providing far more energy per unit mass than a lead-acid battery can. But the explanation is not purely technical. It also has a psychological component. Buyers of private cars, then as now, did not want to feel limited by the range of an electric vehicle’s battery, and the uncertainty of being able to recharge it. A 1902 article, “The Problem of the Automobile,” published in the Electrical World and Engineer, argued that even if charging points or battery-swapping stations were available across America, “one does not wish to limit his country tour to lines of travel along which he can strike charging facilities … [one] wants to have a certain liberty of action which a journey fully prearranged cannot give.” In the words of the historian Gijs Mom, private cars in this period were primarily seen as “adventure machines” that granted freedom to their owners—and an electric vehicle granted less freedom than the petrol-powered alternative. “To possess a car is to become possessed of a desire to go far afield,” wrote one city-dwelling car enthusiast in 1903. Sales of electric cars peaked in the early 1910s. As internal combustion engines became more reliable, they left electric vehicles in the dust.

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