Who discovered electric cars?

We take a brief look at the history of the electric car...

Who Discovered Electric Cars title with Detroit Electric car in the background

Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, and are a more common sight on our roads than ever before. Their ranges are getting longer, they are becoming more affordable and they are becoming a very viable option for many as their next choice of car.

But, do we really know that much about electric cars and their history? For example, who discovered electric cars?

In this article, we look at who discovered electric cars and the history of the electric car.

Who discovered electric cars?

Contrary to popular belief, electric cars aren’t exactly a new invention. In fact, they date back to the early 1800s, 1828 in fact.

Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik built a small model car powered on electricity. So, you could say that he discovered electric cars. Or, you could argue that this was simply a model car and therefore he didn’t actually discover electric cars.

Some argue that Thomas and Emily Davenport discovered the first electric car. In 1834 the Vermont blacksmith and his wife created a model car that ran on a circular electrified track, using silk from Emily’s wedding dress as wiring. In 1837, the Davenport’s, and their colleague Orange Smalley, received the first American patent for an electric machine/motor.

old black and white illustration of a black electric car
Image: WikiCommons

While this was happening, Professor Sibrandus Stratingh of Groningen, in the Netherlands, and his assistant Christopher Becker were also discovering the power of electric cars. Together, they built a small electric car that was powered by primary cells, non-rechargeable batteries to me and you.

It was between the years of 1837 and 1841 that the first large scale electric car was built. It was built by Robert Davidson, a chemist from Aberdeen. The car was powered by galvanic cells and the larger car, built in 1841, pulled 6 tonnes at 4 miles an hour, for about a mile and a half. It was soon destroyed by railway workers, who saw it as a potential threat to their livelihood.

So there is no definitive answer to who discovered the electric car. There were four different people across the world all discovering a form of electric car around the same period of time. Many accredit Robert Davidson for discovering the electric car because he created the first large-scale electric car, but many also credit the Davenport’s because they were awarded a patent for it.

Either way, the discovery of the electric car came much earlier than many think, or have previously thought.  

When was the first battery-led electric car invented?

Shortly after Robert Davidson had his poor electric car destroyed, French physicist Gaston Plante invented the lead-acid battery. This made electric cars that were actually practical, a very likely possibility. This was in 1859, and there are still lead-acid batteries used in some electric cars today. They are also used in gas-powered cars to help start the engine.

The design of the lead-acid batteries was greatly improved by Camille Alphonse Faure in 1881 which increased their capacity. This led to lead-acid batteries being produced at an industrial-scale.

Black 1915 Electric car in a museum exhibition
Image: WikiCommons

This happened in the same year that the first practical electric car was built. Parisian engineer and carriage builder Charles Jeantaud teamed up with Faure to build an electric car that had a Tilbury-style buggy, a Gramme motor and a battery.

If we jump across to the UK, then William Ayrton and John Perry were busy building an electric tricycle, the first vehicle to use electric lights. The tricycle used lead acid cells and had a pretty impressive range of 10 to 25 miles. It also had a maximum speed of 9mph.

When was the first production electric car built?

We didn’t have to wait long before English inventor Thomas Parker built the first practical production electric car. He used rechargeable batteries that he designed himself.

Parker himself was an impressive man. He was responsible for electrifying the London Underground as well as the tramways in Liverpool and Birmingham as well as a number of other accomplishments. Not bad for a man who probably wouldn’t live past the age of 47.

Who created the first electric vehicle company?

Andrew Riker, an American, developed an electric tricycle that used lead-sulfuric acid batteries that had a range of 25 miles.

In 1888, he formed the Riker Electric Vehicle Company which was based in Elizabeth Port, New Jersey.

However, in the same year, Philip Pratt also created an electric tricycle that was built for him by Fred M. Kimball. Because Riker’s invention was lesser known, Pratt is often given the title “Father of the American Electric Automobile”.

When was the Electric Construction Corporation created?

The Electric Construction Corporation was an English company that was established after a merger between Elwell-Parker Company and their rivals.

This company was created in order to gain a monopoly on the production of electric cars, and it stayed that way for the next decade.

When was the first American electric car made?

The first American electric car was built between the years of 1890 and 1891 by William Morrison of Iowa, though he was originally from Scotland.

It was a six-passenger wagon and could travel up to 14mph. It is also thought that this could be the first land vehicle steered with a wheel.

The car was shown at the “World’s Colombian Exposition” in Chicago and was seen by almost all of those who would become influential in electric vehicle development.

In 1895, the first known US automobile race was won by an electric vehicle. And, the following year, the first car dealership was set up in the United States and it only sold electric vehicles.

While this was all going on in the United States, Paris had introduced horseless carriages in 1894 and in 1897, a fleet of electric taxis were brought to London. They were nicknamed ‘Hummingbirds’ because they made a humming sound.

1916 Black Detroit Electric in Brussels Autoworld Museum
1916 Detroit Electric in Brussels Autoworld Museum. Image: WikiCommons Showroom sign: "The special feature of this car is that both the bonnet and boot spaces were used to carry batteries used to propel the car. The 'Brougham' body was typical of American electric cars, which were appreciated in city use for being clean and quiet, and were highly valued for social events such as parties, galas, theatr evisits, etc." Has the car industry really learned anything since then?

By the turn of the century there were some huge developments with electric cars. In 1899, one electric car reached a top speed of 65.79mph and it wasn’t long after, in the same year, that the first production electric car was born. The car was produced by the Baker Motor Vehicle Company and was called the Baker Electric.

At this point, there were quite a few electric car companies on the market, and many were merging to create a monopoly over production. In the US, the Riker Electric Vehicle Company, Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, Electric Storage Battery and Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon company merged to form the “Electric Vehicle Company”.

By 1900, 38% (33,842) of cars in the United States were electric, with only 22% of cars being powered by gasoline.

In the 19th century it’s clear to see that electric cars were the way forward. So, what changed?

When did gas powered cars overtake electric cars?

As we can see, electric cars were popular over a century ago, coming in second to steam powered cars. If this trend had continued then Elon Musk could have had us driving around the world in one charge by now. But it didn’t, gas powered cars started becoming more popular and completely wiped electric cars off the map.

It started with the mass production of the Ford Model T. Mass production brought down the cost of gasoline powered cars, so much so that electric cars became two or three times more expensive over the coming years.

Black and white photo of a man driving a black Ford Model T

Not only this, but Texas oil became cheaper and the road networks were becoming more developed. This led people to wanting to travel further distances and electric cars only really had a range of 30 to 40 miles, and it’s limited charging infrastructure meant that people were turning away from electric cars. Electric cars were also slower, only reaching 20MPH. Interestingly, some contribute the demise of electric cars due to the stigma that electric cars were mainly for women. How true this is, we don’t know, but it was true that electric cars were more popular with women, including Ford’s wife, who had an electric car herself.

So, all of those factors contributed to the demise of electric cars. By 1923, one of the last remaining electric vehicle companies, Milburn, was sold to General Motors. In 1929, Detroit Electric company was also sold, ultimately signalling the end of electric cars. For now anyway.

After that, everything was all about gasoline, and we saw the car boom that shaped the rest of the 20th century really. It wasn’t until much later in the 20th century that electric vehicles started to be produced again. And even then, they weren’t half as advanced as they are now.

In conclusion, there’s no one answer to who discovered electric cars. There were a few different people making the same discovery at around the same time. Whether you think it was the Davenports, Jedlik or Aberdeen’s Davidson, they were all doing the same thing just all over the world. Hopefully this has also given you an idea of just how popular electric cars were at the end of the 19th century, something which many people aren’t aware of. Though ultimately electric cars met their demise due to mass production of gasoline powered cars, they are most certainly making a comeback.

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Rachel Richardson
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