Electric Cars and History

Since the invention of the first electric motor strong enough to do work in 1834 people have been dreaming of electric powered transportation. Electric cars, trains and trolleys are older than most people think. In this page we focus on the electric car, but do discuss trains and trolleys since their roots are connected.

History: Timeline

How they Work

Major Cars in History:

The Baker Electric Car

Porsche Electric Cars

The Detroit Electric Car

First Western Hybrid Electric Car 1916, Owen Magnetic

Developing Electric Cars in the 1970s at General Electric

First Modern Hybrid Car 1982 (Experimental)

The Toyota Prius 1997

The Tesla Motor Company 2008

History Timeline:

The first powerful direct current electric motor was originally invented by Thomas Davenport in Brandon, Vermont in 1834. Prior to this other inventors had made weak devices that created motion, but these devices were not suitable for doing any jobs for humankind. Davenport was just a blacksmith by trade, but he dreamed a future with electric trains and trolleys. He build a scale model electric train that went around an oval track. Davenport died young, but many others continued to develop electric transportation.

Leading up to the electric car some components had to be invented:

1821 - Michael Faraday creates the first weak experimental electromagnet
1831 -Joseph Henry builds the first powerful electromagnet (the main component of the electric motor)
1834 - Thomas Davenport develops the first electric motor for commercial use. He creates an electric miniature train and model car. His inventions fail to become profitable since he was using unreliable primitive batteries and the DC dynamo had not been invented yet.

1851 -
The US Senate funds an experimental electric railway from Washington DC to Baltimore. It was engineered by Charles Grafton Page. The effort fails when the batteries crack and coils overheat. Steam still proves to be more practical at this point.

1883 -
England opens the first commercially successful electric tram/trolley engineered by Magnus Volk
1886 - Frank Sprague invents the first practical DC motor, it is capable of consistent speed under varying loads and does not creating sparks
- Frank Sprague uses his DC motor in trolley systems in North America

1897 - Electric cars first used in commercial use as taxis in New York City. They were built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia.
1897 - Baker Motor Vehicle Company founded by Walter C. Baker. Baker made a vehicle with 100 miles range on a charge and top speeds of 22 mph.

1900 - 38% of US automobiles are powered by electricity
1900 - Ferdinand Porsche builds electric cars with max speeds up to 37 mph. Includes the first hybrid electric car and first all wheel drive car.
1900 - Smaller electric vehicle companies were swallowed up quickly over a 2 year period: Electric Carriage and Wagon Co + Pope Manufacturing Co + Riker get absorbed into Electric Vehicle Company. These companies provide cars for the New York City taxi constituency

1900s - Baker Motor Co. produces an electric racing car with top speed of 120 mph.
1907 - Bank crash fatally wounds the financial side of Electric Vehicle Company

1912 - End of the reign of electric cabs in New York City. Now the demand supporting the electric car industry is greatly weakened.
1916 - Baker Motor Company stops production
1916 - First hybrid electric car is made.

1970s - After the price of gasoline hits record highs the interest in electric cars is rekindled. The US Department of Energy funds efforts to try to make a cost effective electric car.

1982 - First modern hybrid car is made at GE Research Lab. It is computer controlled and is the ancestor of current commercial hybrid cars.
1989 - Audi creates a hybrid called the "Duo" with NiCad batteries and a 5 cylinder gas engine. The vehicle never sees mainstream production

1995 - Toyota debuted a hybrid concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show
1997 - The first Prius went on sale in the Japanese market.
1997 - Audi creates the Duo III and it makes it to series production
1998 - Nissan produces 200 of the Altra EV from 1998-2002

2008 - Tesla Motors sells the Tesla Roadster with a 200+ mile range
2009 - Ford Fusion hybrid is released
2010 - Nissan Leaf all electric car sold. Synchronous electric motor used on front axle.
2010 - Mercedes-Benz collaborates with Tesla Motor Company to produce the A-Class E-Cell
2011 - Chevy Volt, hybrid car, sold in US market 25-50 mile range

How Electric Cars Work
We are still building this section of the page, but you can learn more about the components of an electric car on other parts of our website:

Electric Motor
Iron/Steel - (Under Construction)
Electric Light
Control Engineering

Electric Cars

The Baker Electric Car

The Baker Electric Car was produced by Baker Motor Vehicle Company. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, they produced some well performing early electric cars. Cleveland's history with the electricity began in the 1870's with local pioneer of electricity Charles F. Brush who created the first city lighting systems in North America using arc lights.

These set of photos are from what is probably a 1903 Baker Electric. Originally we thought it was a 1901 Baker Electric due to documents registering the car to E. W. Rice of General Electric but under the seat there is a GE motor with a 1903 patent as the last date, therefore the car may be from as early as 1903. It is possible this is a 1901 and it was restored in the 1970's using a 1903 motor.

A motor under the seat

Baker Electric uses a chain drive

Batteries in the front and rear of the car. These batteries are not original. Edison lead-acid batteries were originally used.

Automobile Motor No 116324 Application GE1020 E2WO ??? 26 Volts 48 Speed 1980 Patented July 9 '89 ?? 25, '90 July 8, '90 Nov 10, 91 Oct 22, '95 May 5, '96 Dec 14 '97 Jan 31'99 May 12 1903 General Electric Co. Schenectady, N.Y., U.S.A.

Below: video of this car in action:



Mercury Arc Rectifier Battery Charger for the Baker Electric's Edison Batteries. That is a slate circuit board.

VIDEO: Electric Car charger used for the Baker Electric and Detroit Electric:


Porsche Electric Cars

The founder of Porsche, Professor Ferdinand Porsche had a strong interest in electric vehicles. He designed his own electric vehicles and even operated the vehicles in races. Porsche created the first hybrid electric car in 1900 and continued to produce various electric vehicles, some of which could reach top speeds of 37 mph.

By 1901 Porsche had sold 5 Lohner-Porsche Mixte cars at luxury prices. His work on hybrids cost a lot and cars could only be sold at prices twice that of comparable gasoline models. Porsche faired much better selling his pure electric cars with 65 being sold in the first 5 years.

See this great article on his cars from Porsche.

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The Detroit Electric Car

The Detroit Electric Car Company (1907-1939) produced a very effective and practical fully electric set of vehicles. The vehicles were controlled by a level from the back seat.

Like many cars of the day it was very appealing to women as it did not require operating a dangerous crank like a gasoline engine. The car was appealing to many as it had interior and exterior electric lights. Gasoline engines of the day had only oil lanterns which were tricky to light and keep operating.

In the video below this 1914 Detroit Electric Car was owned by electrical pioneer Charles P.Steinmetz. He rode in the back and had a driver use the tiller in the front.

Below: video of Steinmetz's electric car pulling out of the Edison Tech Center

This video will be posted shortly

The First Western Hybrid Electric Car, 1916:

The first hybrid electric car company in the Western Hemisphere was called the Owen Magnetic Motor Car Corporation. The company eventually failed due to the high cost of production and the fact that the car did not save much fuel compared to the standard small gas motors of the time. The car had a 6 cylinder engine.

The car was sold under the name "Crown Magnetic" in Great Britain. The Owen Magnetic Motor Car Corporation existed from 1915-1922. Manufacturing started in New York City and ended in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Later In the 1980's computers became powerful and compact enough to be used to control a hybrid car engine and breaking. The computer made it a practical and energy saving invention, see below "The First Modern Hybrid Electric Car". The advent of computer controlled hybrids may be the reason why hybrids did not develop further after Owen shut down in 1922.

Electric Cars at GE in the 1970's:

An article about Bob King's research at General Electric, published in the Monogram 1975

The Failure of Electric Cars in the 1970s and 1980s:

In the early 20th century cities were dense, built around trolley lines or walking distance to work places and downtown. The early electric cars functioned well for these short distances. By the late 20th century cities had exploded in size with 30+ mile commutes being commonplace, especially in North America. This energy intensive lifestyle proved very difficult for making electric cars feasible on a mass scale.

Electric motors are very efficient, they have been more efficient than gasoline motors since the 1890s, however batteries proved to be a limiting factor. Until higher energy density batteries were developed in the 1990s, cars had to use NiCad or other types of batteries. These batteries had a bad weight to energy ratio. The large weight and cost of batteries made electric cars impractical for the majority of North American users.

There was not necessarily a conspiracy stopping the electric car, if you speak to people who worked on them in the 70s it is apparent that technological limitations were behind the failure of electric cars in a commercial sense. If one looks deeper it is the reckless sprawl period of US urban development (1950 - 2000) that really killed the electric car. In the 2000s development trends have shifted more towards high density as the younger populations have a cultural difference from the boomer generations.

The First Modern Hybrid Electric Car:

Dr. Andrew Burke developed the first computer controlled hybrid-electric vehicle in 1982 as part of the "Joint Feasibility Study of the Hybrid Vehicle" funded by the US government and GE. When GE couldn't sell the car to the big 3 US automakers, they sold the technology. Toyota later makes it into a profitable technology.

The 1982 vehicle used a computer to control the engine and power system, this enabled great cost savings. Also the breaking system helped recharge the batteries. This was all possible due to the computer finally becoming compact enough and powerful enough to work in a vehicle.

VIDEO: The first computerized hybrid car 1982:


If video fails to load correctly go here

The Toyota Prius

Toyota acquired patents for the modern hybrid electric car in the 1980s after General Electric failed to find adequate interest in the American car market. Toyota built upon the design and develop the Toyota Prius which became the first profitable hybrid car in history. The car allowed for modern users to drive long distances using gasoline while using electric around town. This was necessary since urban design changed greatly from the early part of the century.

Tesla Motor Company: Tesla Roadster and Model S

Tesla Motor Company emerged in the late 2000s with high performance and high cost electric cars. The Roadster was based on the Lotus with an attractive sporty design. It was not cost effective however but Tesla Motors achieved success with the Model S. The Model S appealed to the masses with its standard 4 door sedan design and ease of use. The Model S is so far the best performing electric car ever, and it out performs internal combustion engines in the same class. The single gear high torque Tesla beat out powerful Mercedes and BMWs in acceleration and stability.

Below we talk about the 3 phase, 4 pole electric motor and drive train in the Tesla Model S:


In the next half we discuss batteries, range, charging rate, body construction and components of the Tesla Motors Model S:



The New Rise of Electric Vehicles:

History repeats itself, and once again we see the rise of electric vehicles in the mainstream market. The Nissan Leaf, Honda Insight, and Chevy Volt are all targeted at middle class markets and have proven to be successful. With fuel prices rising many customers are seeing clear cost savings.

Some of the downsides of electric vehicles are the high cost of replacement batteries and what to do with the highly toxic waste. The long term solution to this is providing power to the EV by way of the grid. Providing grid power to vehicles would be by far the most energy efficient method. As is proven by existing overhead tram / bus lines in Europe, the cost of operating and energy consumption is worth it. Google's projects with self-driving cars may help the development of grid powered personal vehicles. By allowing cars to be controlled and spaced on a road evenly, it would make it possible highways that act like train lines between cities. Cars could connect to a "third rail" and travel most of the miles without using batteries or fuel. Batteries are getting smaller with time, and super/ultracapacitors may become an alternative to batteries all together. Andy Burke, one of the inventors of the modern hybrid car is testing ultra capacitors from many manufacturers, see more about it here.

Other Electric Vehicles:

The GE Electric Lawn Mower 1970:

The Elec-Trak E15 lawn mower came out in 1970. We will have more information here from local owners that still use the Elec-Trak. Check back later for more!


Electric Aircraft

Read more here.






Edison Tech Center
Hawkins Electrical Guides
The Monogram - General Electric Company


General Electric Company
Hawkins Electrical Guide
Rice Family
Tesla Motor Company
Hybrid Vehicle.org
Schenectady Museum


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