If you haven’t checked out the latest development in cars, it’s time to jump on board. They’re convenient, quiet, clean and easy to start. Best of all, they won’t singe your skirts or soil your gloves. These features appeared in ads for the new-fangled electric cars from the 1890s to roughly 1930. Following are five secrets of Victorian Era electric cars and the ladies who loved them—plus a few gentlemen (including Jay Leno.)
As with most major technological innovations of any era, the electric car emerged as a series of breakthroughs. Yes, Leonardo da Vinci designed a rudimentary car in the 15th century. But the official bonanza for electric cars began around 1828 with Anyos Jedik’s early electric motor. A progression of inventions and designs followed.
Thomas Parker produced the first practical electric car using his own high-capacity rechargeable batteries in London in 1884 and an industry was born. According to the Library of Congress, more than one-third of cars sold in the United States through the early 1900s were electric.
Electric cars were easy, they didn’t smell and they were perfect for getting around town. A lady could head out for a day of shopping without any messy explosions or leaks. Even Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, drove electric cars instead of Fords.
The early vehicles included two, three and four-wheel designs. Yes, they topped out at 30 mph, with most reliable speeds at around 20 mph. Batteries offered a range of about 100 miles per charge.
By the turn of the century, major cities had decent streets as well as electricity. With thousands of electric cars in use, charging stations could be found all over New York City. Ladies could charge their cars while shopping and running errands. Many delivery vehicles were also electric.
According to a New York Times article, January 1, 1911,
“Even though most of the vehicles shown in Madison Square Garden this week are those of the strictly business variety, the second part of the National Automobile Show has been attended by a great many visitors of the fair sex…Ever since the small electric runabouts were introduced about ten years ago, they have always been popular with women…These machines have retained all of their early popularity and are steadily growing in favor with both men and women.”
Thomas Edison was a huge fan of the electric car. He said:
“Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water circulating system to get out of order – no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.”
After building his first Quadricycle, Henry Ford was already convinced that ethanol made from grain and plants readily available should fuel cars. After urging from his friend, Henry Ford announced that he was working with Edison on the development of an affordable electric car. In the January 11, 1914, issue of the New York Times:
“Within a year, I hope, we shall begin the manufacture of an electric automobile. I don’t like to talk about things which are a year ahead, but I am willing to tell you something of my plans.
The fact is that Mr. Edison and I have been working for some years on an electric automobile which would be cheap and practicable. Cars have been built for experimental purposes, and we are satisfied now that the way is clear to success. The problem so far has been to build a storage battery of lightweight which would operate for long distances without recharging. Mr. Edison has been experimenting with such a battery for some time.”
Edison was determined to improve on the fragile, unreliable lead-acid batteries on the market. He developed a nickel-iron storage battery instead. The liquid was a base, sodium hydroxide.
Edison claimed that his batteries would last at least 100 years. Jay Leno has some of these batteries that still work in his 1909 Baker Electric Coupe. In many cases, Edison batteries were an up sell item. If you purchased an electric car from the Anderson Carriage Company at approximately $2,600, you could pay $600 extra for Edison batteries.
According to Leno, all he has to do is rinse them, replenish the electrolyte and they’re good to go.
Edison announced his new batteries with his usual flair for marketing and promotion. Sales were brisk until stories of leaking and failing batteries hit the press. Edison shut down his factory in 1905 to overhaul his product.
By 1910 the new design was in production. Unfortunately, Henry Ford had already introduced the Model T in 1909. Reliable electric self-starter mechanisms that could replace cumbersome crank starters were on the market by 1896. Oil reserves had been discovered and huge investments made in both oil and rubber. The market for gasoline-fueled cars pulled away from electrics at high speeds.
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