The Secret History of Electric Cars

Nickel–iron batteries under the “Exide” brand originally developed in 1901 by Thomas Edison. 

When the automobile began to gain acceptance in America and Europe, there were three basic power sources vying for dominance. Around 1900, only 22% of America cars were gas-powered. Surprisingly, 40% were steam-powered and 38% were electric-powered. On both continents, electric cars were lauded for their quiet operation in addition to easy starting (no hand cranking required) and low-maintenance requirements. It was in France that the first electric vehicle was created in 1881 and although it was only three wheeled, it led to multiple advances, resulting in the first automobile to achieve 60 miles per hour in the same country in 1899.

1914 Ford electric vehicle

Meanwhile, in America, battery-powered vehicles began in earnest with a tricycle in 1888 and a four-wheeled vehicle in 1890. The development and improvements in storage batteries (invented by Thomas Edison) provided numerous inventors and manufacturers to develop increasingly more capable vehicles. Between 1900 and 1910, Edison experimented with automobile batteries, looking first at very heavy lead acid components before focusing on a long-lasting and lightweight iron-nickel application.

Photo: Edison with Battery in Car.

Once the technology behind an electric vehicle was rectified, the prospects for mass adoption of the early electric car faced obstacles that are currently being addressed once more. The absence of a regional battery-charging infrastructure was highlighted as electrification was just spreading to highly populated areas in America. By 1912, 20 companies were operating battery charging and sales businesses and 33,842 electric cars were registered on the road. The urban-centered vehicles gained in popularity between 1910 and 1920 and boasted ranges of up to 40 miles with speeds up to 20 miles per hour. Acceptable at first, rival technologies quickly overshadowed electric options.

The reality of these shortcomings and advances in internal combustion engines and battery-powered electric starters, gave way to the popularity of American vehicles that relied on gasoline but had much longer ranges, higher speeds and a wider infrastructure with gasoline stations and service centers. Thus, the American automobile, powered by gasoline, won out.


As we see increased ranges up to 500 miles, amazing performance, stellar economy ratings and improved national infrastructure; the electric car is sure to live up to its promise just over 100 years ago. This time, almost every auto manufacturer is working on electrical vehicles, and dozens have been selling models with increased growth for years. The question is not IF, but WHEN you will be driving one!

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