Saturday, October 18, 2008

The car of the future runs completely on electricity. No more dependence on gas. No more choking the atmosphere with fumes. Whenever the possibility of electric cars is raised, the media and other commentators ooh and ahh over the potential. But this technology isn't futuristic — it's positively retro. Cars powered by electricity have been on the scene since the 1800s and actually predate gas-powered cars. A blacksmith in Vermont — Thomas Davenport — built the first rotary electric motor in 1833 and it to power a model train the next year. In the late 1830s, Scottish inventor Robert Davidson rigged a carriage with an electric motor powered by batteries. In his Pulitzer-nominated book Taking Charge, archaeology professor and technology historian Michael Brian Schiffer writes

that this "was perhaps the first electric car." After this remarkable achievement, the idea of an electric car languished for decades. In 1881, a French experi-menter debuted a personal vehicle that ran on electricity, a tricycle (ie, three wheels

and a seat) for adults. In 1888, many inventors in the US, Britain, and Europe started creating threeand four-wheel vehicles — which could carry two

to six people — that ran on electricity. These vehicles remained principally curios-ities until May 1897, when the Pope Manufacturing Company — the country's most successful bicycle manufacturer — started selling the first commercial electric car: the Columbia Electric Phaeton, Mark III. It topped out at fifteen miles

per hour, and had to be recharged every 30 miles. Within two years, people could choose from an array of electrical carriages, buggies, wagons, trucks, bicycles, tricycles, even buses and ambulances made by numerous manufacturers.

New York City was home to a fleet of electric taxi cabs starting in 1897. The Electric Vehicle Company eventually had over 100 of them ferrying people around the Big Apple. Soon it was unleashing electric taxis in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington DC. By 1900, though, the company was in trouble, and seven years later it sputtered out. As for cars powered by dead dinosaurs, Austrian engineer Siegfried Marcus attached a one cylinder motor to a cart in 1864, driving it 500 feet and thus creating the first vehicle powered by gas (this was around 25 years after Davidson had created the first electro-car). It wasn't until 1895 that gas autos — converted carriages with a two-cylinder engine — were commercially

sold (and then only in microscopic numbers). Around the turn of the century, the average car buyer had a big choice to make: gas, electric, or steam? When the auto industry took form around 1895, nobody knew which type of vehicle was

going to become the standard. During the last few years of the nineteenth century and the first few of the twentieth, over 100 companies placed their bets on electricity. According to Schiffer, "Twenty-eight percent of the 4,192 American automobiles produced in 1900 were electric. In the New York automobile show of that year more electrics were on display than gasoline or steam vehicles."

In the middle of the first decade of the 1900s, electric cars were on the decline, and their gaseating cousins were surging ahead. With improvements in the cars and their batteries, though, electrics started a comeback in 1907, which continued through 1913. The downhill slide started the next year, and by the 1920s the market for electrics was "minuscule," to use Schiffer's word. Things never got better. Many companies tried to combine the best of both approaches, with cars that ran on a mix of electricity and gas. The Pope Manufacturing Company, once again in the vanguard, built a working prototype in 1898. A Belgian company and a French company each brought out commercial models the next year, beating the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight to the market by over a century. Even Ferdinand Porsche and the Mercedes Company got in on the act. Unfortunately, these hybrids never really caught on. Didik Design — which manufactures several vehicles which run on various combinations off electricity, solar power, and human power — maintains an extensive archive on the history of electric and electro-fuel cars. According to their research, around 200 companies and individuals have manufactured electric cars. Only a few familiar names are on the list (although some of them aren't familiar as car manufacturers): Studebaker (1952-1966), General Electric (1901- 1904), Braun (1977), Sears, Roebuck, and Company (1978), and Oldsmobile (1896 to the present). The vast majority have long been forgotten: Elecctra, Pfluger, Buffalo Automobile Company, Hercules, Red Bug, and Nu-Klea Starlite, to name a few. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison teamed up on an electric car, but, although some prototypes were built, it never was commercially produced. Though they have faded from mass cultural memory, electric cars have

never been completely out of production. The reasons why electrics faded into obscurity while gas cars and trucks became 99.999 percent dominant are complex and are still being debated. If only they hadn't been sidelined and had continued to develop apace, the world would be a very different place.


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