A Road Trip Through Time

A look back at the history of electric vehicles

9 September 2011

With the release of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, more electric and hybrid vehicles are hitting the streets these days. Electric cars are not a new development, though. You might be surprised to learn that such vehicles date back to the late 1800s.

As we look to the future of EVs in this special issue, The Institute did some digging into their past with the help of the IEEE History Center and an article written by Carl Sulzberger—a former member of the IEEE History Committee who wrote the two-part “An Early Road Warrior” [IEEE Power & Energy Magazine, May/June 2004 and September/October 2004]. He is now associate editor of history for the magazine. 


EVs have certainly had a bumpy ride. Numerous inventors in Europe and North America were developing self-propelled automobiles in the late 1800s to replace the horse and buggy. They focused on steam, internal combustion, and electric-powered alternatives. The introduction of electric power generation and distribution systems in the 1880s further spurred interest in electric cars. Several were built in the 1890s. The cars were silent, clean, and simple to operate, according to Sulzberger. But their range was limited by the charge on their batteries. “Thus, electric cars were restricted to areas where they could easily return home to recharge or where recharging facilities were made available by a local electric power company,” he wrote. Sound familiar? That is the same hurdle today’s all-electric vehicles face.

The early electric cars were much slower than their steam- or gasoline-powered competitors. Typical cruising speed was less than 32 kilometers per hour. Going faster cut down the cars’ range, which at the time was only 40 to 64 km. The batteries were very heavy and prone to problems, too, requiring frequent maintenance.

The first successful electric car in the United States was built in 1891 by William Morrison, Sulzberger wrote, adding that it was equipped with a 4-horsepower motor and a 24-cell battery weighing 348 kilograms—more than half of the vehicle’s total weight. Its top speed was 22 km per hour.

A few years later, Pope Manufacturing Co. of Hartford, Conn., became the first U.S. manufacturer to sell electric cars in large numbers. Its cars also topped out at around 22 km per hour and could travel up to 48 km between battery charges. In Belgium, one electric car proved it could go much faster, setting a speed record of 109 km per hour.

By the late 19th century, EVs had a couple of advantages over the primitive gas-powered cars of the time. They were more reliable and didn’t need to be hand cranked to start. In 1900, 28 percent of the 4192 cars produced in the United States were electric, according to Sulzberger.

In the meantime, Thomas A. Edison had become a proponent of EVs and spent years trying to invent a more efficient and less corrosive battery than the lead-acid one used at the time. He developed a nickel-iron-alkaline battery that “had a power density of some 14 watt-hours per pound, resulting in a battery weight of 53.3 pounds per horsepower-hour,” Sulzberger wrote. “This was some 233 percent better than contemporary lead-acid batteries.” 

But soon after the battery went on sale in 1904, reports of leaks and other problems prompted Edison to discontinue it. He dedicated the next few years and spent more than US $1 million of his personal fortune on improving the battery, which he reintroduced in 1909. It extended the range to 160 km between charges.

Edison said he believed the battery would revolutionize the electric vehicle industry, but it failed to catch on with most manufacturers, which continued making cars with lead-acid batteries. Because those batteries continued to be problematic, the success enjoyed by EVs was soon over. 

Even though DC power stations were being built around the United States, distribution of electricity was slow and uneven. “As such, the necessary widespread infrastructure for recharging electric vehicle batteries, either at home or at a nearby location, simply did not exist,” Sulzberger wrote.

In addition, people wanted to travel longer distances in their cars. Cross-country trips became possible as more roads were built. EVs simply were not suited for such excursions. That fact, combined with the introduction of low-cost, gas-powered cars such as the Ford Model T, drove many electric car makers out of business. At the same time, improvements were made to gas-powered cars. 

The need to crank a gas engine had been a major shortcoming. Charles Kettering was the first to develop and manufacture an electric self-starter system, which was introduced in the 1912 Cadillac. “And the rest, as they say, is history,” Sulzberger says. The gas-engine car went on to become the standard.

Interest in electric cars never disappeared, however, and electric vehicles were zipping around major cities well into the 1920s.

By the early 1970s, as gas prices soared and concerns about the environment mounted, developers renewed their interest in EVs. Numerous models were built, but they had little success. One of them, the CitiCar from Sebring-Vanguard, sold about 2000 units in the United States. And in 1996, General Motors began producing but soon discontinued the EV1, the first mass-produced electric car of the modern era made by a major automaker. 

Despite advances over the decades, the limitations of the batteries remained a problem. Even the best electric cars could travel only a fraction of the distance of gas-powered cars.

Engineers began rethinking the electric car. And so the hybrid vehicle was born. It uses both electricity and gasoline. In the mid-1990s, Toyota Motor Corp. worked on building the first commercial hybrid, the Prius. It was launched in Japan in 1997 and then worldwide in 2001. By 2010, Toyota had sold 2 million units. 

Today, other hybrids and all-electric cars are on the market. The Chevrolet Volt has a gas engine ready to take over when its electric charge runs out after 64 km. The Honda Insight competes with the Volt in the hybrid market. Nissan’s all-electric Leaf can go 160 km before needing a recharge, and an all-electric Ford Focus should be available soon. The high-performance $109 000 Tesla Roadster electric car debuted in 2008.

With increasingly innovative cars and countries pushing for more fuel-efficient vehicles to lessen their reliance on fossil fuels, will EVs soon have a second heyday? Respond to the Question of the Month to let us know what you think.

For more information about the history of electric cars, visit the IEEE Global History Network, or visit the IEEE Xplore digital library to read “An Early Road Warrior.”

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