Much like ubiquitous cell phones, everyone being a freaking lunatic, and the existence of TikTok, relatively common electric cars are one of those things that we take as a marker of our modern age. The truth, though, is that EVs have been around a lot longer than many people realize — nearly 200 years! Understanding the general timeline of EVs is important, I think, so let’s walk through it, with the magic of moving pictures.
Yes, this is a little video series about the timeline of EVs, and, more specifically, my own idiosyncratic take on the EV timeline, which I divide into three primary eras:
The Contender Era, The Crap Era, and The Tesla Era. This first video will just deal with the first era, which spans from 1830 to 1920.
I call this The Contender Era because it represents the period in history when electric cars were viable contenders to be the dominant form of automobile, in competition with steam and gasoline cars.
Of these three options, steam was by far the dominant technology. The very first actual automobile was steam powered, the Cugnot Steam Drag of 1769, and steam became the dominant prime mover for vehicles like trains from the late 1820s on.
Electric cars came about after steam cars, but before gasoline (or diesel) internal-combustion cars, with very early electric cars appearing in the 1830s, and with rechargeable lead-acid batteries appearing around 1860.
Internal combustion cars were still in very primitive stages of development in the 1860s. Sure, at least one internal-combustion experiment took place in 1807 (de Rivaz’ hydrogen internal combustion car) but it wasn’t until the development of the Otto Cycle in 1876 that internal-combustion gasoline engines became practical.
What’s interesting about electric cars of this era is that, to most outside observers, you would think that there is no question this is the way cars should be.
Mechanically, an EV was far simpler than a steam or internal-combustion car, which required all sorts of things to eventually spin a shaft — remember, that’s the end goal for any car engine: spin a shaft that can connect to a transmission and from there differentials, axles, wheels, all that.
On a gas or steam car, you’re having to deal with solid or liquid fuels, combust the the fuel, vent out exhaust gases and mix fuel and air for gasoline cars, use valves and push cylinders up and down to move a crankshaft to transform the reciprocating motion into rotational motion, then keep everything cool enough to not catch on fire — it’s a complicated way to turn energy into a spinning axle.
On an EV, you connect a motor to some batteries and invisible magnetic fields do the hard part, and boom, spinning shaft.
As a result, EVs were quiet and simple to use, no complicated gears or clutches or spark advance or being careful a radiator wouldn’t geyser up steam suddenly; no funny smells or sooty clouds of exhaust, no waiting for boilers to boil or the fear of an engine backfiring while you’re cranking it over, breaking your arm.
EVs were marketed as the elegant, classy, clean, easy choice, targeted more at women and people uninterested in being covered in grease and grime whenever they went out.
In big cities like New York that were well electrified by the later 1910s, electric cars were a fantastic option. The short range wasn’t a big deal for a city car, recharging was relatively easy and accessible, and the vehicles were easy to use. No wonder EVs outnumbered gas cars in 1900 in the city.
You may have noticed, though, that EVs were not the dominant car of the 20th century, because nothing gets by you. That’s because early into the 20th century the Texas Oil Boom made gasoline cheap and plentiful, and became easier to get in places where comprehensive electrical grids had yet to reach.
The energy density of gasoline was so much better than batteries it just made more sense—even with the relative mechanical complexity of a gasoline car—for the dominant form of automobile to run on gas.
By the early 1920s, it was pretty clear gasoline had won. EVs fell out of favor rapidly, and found themselves relegated to very specific, niche uses, or as hobbyist vehicles for eccentrics.
This was the start of the long Crap Era, which we’ll get to next episode, so stay tuned!