Whether you’ve already gone green or you’re sticking to your gas-guzzling motor, there’s no denying that electric cars are quickly entering the mainstream.
There are still plenty of issues to be solved when it comes to EVs, from improving charging infrastructure to bringing down the cost of the cars themselves, but with major companies like Tesla and Toyota leading the charge, electric vehicles have never been more popular… or have they?
For most people, electric cars are a pretty recent development. Most mainstream electric cars – including the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model 3 – only officially launched within the last decade or so. But the history of electric vehicles goes back further than you might think. A lot further.
The first ever working electric car was created in 1837. That’s not a typo. More than 130 years before Elon Musk was even born, a Scottish inventor named Robert Anderson invented the first car able to run on a single-charge battery, with other manufacturers in France and the United States, including Thomas Edison, building on his work over the next few decades to create practical electric vehicles.
It seems hard to believe, but it’s true. In fact, electric vehicles were actually developed several decades before petrol-powered cars became a reality, with the first car using a gasoline engine only invented in 1870.
This head-start meant that electric cars were, for a few years at least, more popular than petrol-engine powered cars. In fact, when Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to publicly ride in an automobile in 1902, it was in an electric car.
To put things in perspective, at the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles counted for over a quarter of all cars, with the bestselling car in the US being the Columbia Motor Carriage – an electric vehicle. Compare that to 2021, when EVs have a market share of 18.3%, and it’s easy to wonder just how different our world would be if electric cars had maintained their popularity over the ‘classic’ petrol cars that still dominate today.
There are a few reasons why electric cars were quicker to hit the scene a century and a half ago. For starters, they were cleaner, and touted as a solution to the filthy streets and air that polluted cities in the 19th century. They were also initially marketed towards women, with the lack of hand cranking and gear shifting supposedly making them easier to operate and more suitable for short trips.
But the biggest reason is fairly simple: there was no mass-produced alternative. That all changed in 1908, when Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off the factory line for the first time, marking the launch of the first truly affordable automobile.
The Model T revolutionised the car industry, with one vehicle made every 90 minutes by 1914.
That same year, Ford announced he was working on an affordable electric car with inventor Thomas Edison, but the plans never got off the ground. By 1925, Ford was producing more than two million cars a year, and petrol cars had firmly cemented their place as the dominant form of private transport.
The issues that held electric cars back in the early 20th century are similar to the drawbacks they face today: they weren’t affordable, and buyers were put off by the lack of range and charging points.
It’s taken more than a century for electric cars to once again become a legitimate alternative to petrol cars. But imagine what the world would look like if it had been that way all along.
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