What Took Them So Long?

Contrary to popular belief, automobiles powered by electricity
are not new. They were silently rolling around workshop yards in Scotland, Holland, Hungary and the USA close to 70 years before the first gasoline powered car rattled down the streets of my hometown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tradition has it that first “horseless carriage” to thrill Victoria residents was part of a travelling circus making a city stop in 1899. In her fascinating book Above Stairs: Social Life in Upper-Class Victoria 1843-1918, Valerie Green tells us after the circus departed “the first automobile of note to be acknowledged as such was owned by Dr. Edward Charles Hart, one-time Victoria coroner. His was a 3.5 horsepower Oldsmobile that arrived in Victoria on May 23, 1902, to be driven down Johnson Street the following day by its proud owner. It set Dr. Hart back $900 and was capable of achieving speeds of 15 miles an hour.”

While the natives and immigrants to the British Colony on Vancouver Island were marveling at the noisy but wonderful new gasoline driven carriage, old world scientists were reaching beyond internal combustion. Between 1832 and 1839 Scotsman Robert Anderson, Holland’s Sibrandus Stratingh, Hungarian inventor Anyos Jedlik and one Christopher Becker claimed to have electric vehicles up and running.

It is generally held that Anderson of Scotland was the first to invent what is described as “the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.” Some insist the leadership claim is still under debate. The life of Anderson’s first car – described as “a crude beast” was as brief as its non-renewable battery, but it launched the search which continues to this day for ever better long-life or easy to recharge batteries that can store power for longer periods.

It may be surprising to some that the electric cars now being re-introduced to our highways and byways as the new and best way to go drive-about are merely re-claiming a position they once held in the late 19th century and early 20th. Englishman Thomas Parker, electrical engineer, is credited as being the man who built the first practical electric car powered by his then revolutionary high-capacity rechargeable batteries.

That was in 1884. Four years later German inventor Andreas Flocken introduced the Flocken Elektrowagen and by the turn of the century, electric powered cars were the vehicle of choice. It is estimated that by the time 1900 rolled around 30,000 electric powered vehicles were offering a level of comfort and ease of operation far beyond gasoline driven vehicles.

In that same year, 192 cars were produced in the fledgling USA auto building industry. Twenty-eight per cent were powered by electricity. Of all the cars on the roads of New York, Boston and Chicago one third were electric. Close to 20 per cent of New York taxis were electric – and then came 1908 and Henry Ford’s Model T; gasoline powered, noisy, and polluting, but within financial reach of most working families.

Four years later Charles Kettering (cct) invented the electrical starter to eliminate the heavy hand cranking required to start an internal combustion engine. The push-button starter and mushrooming proliferation of gasoline and service stations made internal combustion king of the road with non-polluting electric cars pushed into hibernation.

Close to 100 years later, a stirring of environmental conscience and ever rising gas prices resurrected the desire for clean electric power. Major auto manufacturers are now switching entirely or partially back to electric or hybrid power, all claiming leadership in the race for cleaner air.

When we remember that the first hybrid car running on gasoline and electricity was built by Porsche in 1899, it seems justifiable to ask the entire auto industry – what took you so long?

2 comments

  1. Electric vehicles may be desirable but there is not an acceptable way of producing the electricity they use.

    Much electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, providing no advantage for an electric car over the internal combustion engine. In fact it is probably more efficient to burn fossil fuels in a vehicle than to burn them at electrical stations and then transfer the electrical energy to a vehicle.

    Hydro electricity is more benign but power dams despoil the environment and are therefore much opposed.

    Nuclear power avoids the perceived problems of these first two options but it’s also the most unpopular.

    A few years ago my left wing friend purchased a hybrid car and was very proud of it and its supposed environmental compatibility. He did not like it when I said, “Oh, I see you’re driving a coal car.”

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