4 July 2010

When Was the Electric Car Invented?

You would be forgiven for believing that the electric car is something of a modern phenomenon, a reaction to the fact that the world’s accessible reserves of petroleum will be gone within a few decades.  The first electric car was manufactured in Clevelend, Ohio.  The year?  1899.

The Baker Motor Vehicle Company had a short history – only fifteen years between 1899 and the beginning of the First World War.  Its first vehicle was produced in 1899.  Thomas Edison had designed the batteries used in these Baker Electrics and in fact he bought one as his very first automobile.  The Electrobat Automobile, an early design by the nascent company, had been exhibited at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1983.  As such it was the first vehicle to be demonstrated in public.

One of the ironies of the marketing poster above is that the company was not afraid to say just how expensive their vehicle was - but that it would prove economic over time.  How many companies would make a pitch like that nowadays?

The Baker Electric started as a two seater but by 1907 the range had expanded to seventeen models, the largest of which was the Inside Drive Coupe which (hurrah!) had a roof.  The numbers of cars made were never large.  However, in 1906 they made over 800 which made them (at the time) the world’s largest manufacturer of electrical cars. They were aimed very much at the middle class market.

By today’s standards the performance of these cars was not up to much.  They had a top speed of 20 mph which at the time was considered more than adequate in urban areas.  In fact, it is still recognized at the speed at which a collision between moving vehicle and human will not necessarily turn out to be fatal in the majority of cases.  At its height the car cost over $2,000, a princely sum in those days (as a footnote, Edison bought his for $850).

The batteries designed by Edison were sturdy to say the least and have proven themselves to have longevity beyond all expectations.  Some of these batteries still work and are in use to this day. The company merged with Rauch and Lang in 1914, becoming Baker, Rauch and Lang.  The last cars were made in 1916 but the decision which made industrial trucks carried on for a few years longer.

Much has been made of the fact that the electric car was overtaken by the gas driven one we all know because it was simply a matter of speed.

The racer which was developed by the company (also the first car in history to have seatbelts) was capable of speeds in excess of 75 mph.  It was called the Torpedo.

The rise of the gas driven motor vehice put the electric car companies out of business.  It was a case of expediency - they were cheaper and faster.  It does beg the question – if research had continued in to electric powered motor vehicles just what they would be capable of now?