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Gasoline vs Electric Cars: Not Much Has Changed in 100 Years

We must not have learned from history, because we’re repeating it

Aaron GoldWriterBrandon LimPhotographerThe Henry FordPhotographer

We all know the adage about those who refuse to learn from history—and it seems we learned nothing from the earliest days of electric cars. Go back through the history of the great gas-vs.-electric battle, and you will likely be amazed at the similarities between then and now: Range anxiety, quick charging, electrics as chariots of the elite, Elon Musk as the electric car's Messiah, even Tesla's well-publicized battery fires and Ford's promising new EV—the whole pantomime played out more than 100 years ago, almost exactly as we're seeing it today.

Who Built the First Electric Car?

Electric cars date back to the dawn of the electric motor, when Hungarian inventor Ányos Jedlik fitted his "lightning-magnetic self-rotor" of 1827 to a toy car. But it wasn't until the 1880s that EVs really started to gain traction. Credit the electric trolley: Its speed gave many people their first taste of rapid transit, while large crowds on the cars spurred interest in personal transport. The primary beneficiary was the newly developed safety bicycle, but much of the technology developed for trolley cars—motors, control systems, and batteries—could also be adapted to smaller vehicles.

Despite the fact early electric cars outperformed their internal-combustion competitors, Thomas Edison was seriously impressed by Henry Ford's gasoline-powered Quadricycle of 1894. "Young man, that's the thing," he supposedly told Ford. "Electric cars must be kept near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won't do, either, for they have to have a boiler and a fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it."

One of the First Electric Vehicles: the Electrobat

At the time, the state of the art in terms of electric vehicles was represented by the Electrobat, developed by Philadelphian chemist Pedro Salom and mechanical engineer Henry Morris. The Electrobat I could reach 15 mph—5 mph slower than Ford's Quadricycle—and travel 50-100 miles on a single charge. Later Electrobats cut weight and added speed at the expense of range.

What were the Disadvantages of Electric Cars?

Just as Edison immediately saw the advantage of the gasoline car, Salom zeroed in on its downsides.

"All the gasoline motors we have seen," he said in a presentation to the Franklin Institute, "belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odor. Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell."

He cited the complexity of the gasoline car, which made it difficult to drive and prone to breakdowns. "It would be absolutely essential to have a skillful engineer and machinist to operate them," he said. "Whereas, on an electric vehicle, we can take a boy 12 or 14 years of age, or a young lady accustomed to driving a horse, and, with 10 minutes' practice, they can operate the vehicle perfectly." Even Edison, despite his praise for Ford, realized the shortcomings of gasoline cars made electricity a better choice.

Why Did Electric Cars Lose Popularity in the Early 1900s?

The biggest barrier to electric cars was the lack of infrastructure. Sound familiar? At the turn of the century, most homes, even those of wealthy families, lacked electricity. In 1900, C.E. Woods, author of "The Electric Automobile: Its Construction, Care and Operation," proposed a network of public pay-per-use chargers that would allow a person to drive from New York to San Francisco. His idea was that after four hours of driving, both battery and occupants would be exhausted, so why not plug in the car and go enjoy a meal? His charge-while-you-eat vision would finally be realized, in some part, by Tesla's Supercharger network—but then as now his idea was hamstrung by the lack of standard EV plugs.

Battery technology was also a limitation, and range and weight were not the only problems. Lead-acid batteries of the era were exceptionally maintenance-intensive. Even Salom and Morris, veterans of the trolley industry, thought battery maintenance would be beyond the scope of private owners. Maintenance required removing a 500- to 1,000-pound battery every few days to check the acid in each cell with a hydrometer, top off low cells, replace dead cells, remove the sludge from the bottom of the cell jars, and periodically clean or replace the positive plates. Charles Duryea, a dissatisfied EV owner who would develop America's first gasoline-powered car in 1894, complained that "a set of batteries was worse to take care of than a hospital full of sick dogs."

Salom and Morris developed a fleet of cabs for New York City, but soon ran into trouble. The batteries were developed for stationary use in power stations; as it turned out, they weren't up to the rough ride and deep-discharge cycles of cab service. Even with proper maintenance, they failed after a few months, and word of the failures quickly spread in the motoring press. A near-decade-long "dark age" set in during which interest in EVs waned—much like the decade between General Motors' EV-1 and the first Tesla cars. Then as now, without a better battery, EVs were a non-starter.

When was America Electrified?

The timing was unfortunate, as urban electrification spread rapidly. By 1905, electricity was considered a must-have for retail shops and offered massive cost savings to industries. As supply surged and prices dropped, electric companies began loaning and even giving away appliances. They began to see electric vehicles as a potential profit center and load leveler. Demand for power was almost non-existent at night, a problem that overnight EV charging could solve.

Though motoring was still expensive, automobile touring was becoming the nation's new pastime. And since such touring required range, gasoline had the clear advantage over electricity. What the electric car needed was a hero, and Edison—arguably the Musk of his day—stepped into that role.

The Edison Storage Battery Company

In 1901 he formed the Edison Storage Battery Company and began development of a better battery. Electric-car followers thought Edison's genius would quickly solve the EV's problems, but his early batteries had problems ranging from acid eating through welded seams to exploding cells to rapid loss of capacity. As word leaked out—much like the acid—it seemed as if any hope for an electric-car revolution was in vain.

Meanwhile, Ford was determined to bring motoring to the masses. He founded Ford Motor Co. in 1903, and initially offered a broad lineup of vehicles. The success of the entry-level Model N strengthened Ford's resolve to concentrate on low-cost motoring, and by 1908 he had discontinued nearly every car in his company's range, replacing them with his newest creation, the Model T.

When did Thomas Edison Invent the Storage Battery?

Edison continued development, and the breakthrough finally came in 1907 with new technology for both the positive electrode and the electrolyte. In June 1908, he declared his new battery complete. Edison's nickel-iron battery was at least twice as expensive as competing lead-acid batteries, but it was maintenance free and lasted four years. So great was the threat that Edison's biggest competitor, the Electric Storage Battery Company—later renamed Exide—developed a competing battery called the Ironclad, though it contained no iron. It was a standard lead-acid battery that could, with careful maintenance, last a whole two years.

Early Electric Car Companies

All of these battery improvements fed a surge in electric car sales that began around 1907, the same year the Anderson Carriage Company introduced a new car called the Detroit Electric. Competitor Baker Motor Vehicles offered an electric roadster that could reach 40 MPH—same as the Model T—and run 100 miles at a more conservative 14 mph. At a time when the rural speed limit was still 25, this was considered acceptable performance.

When did Electric Cars Become Popular?

With car ownership on the rise, EV manufacturers began concentrating on the urban market. Horses still clogged city streets, impeding the progress of motor vehicles. Electric cars were targeted at upscale city dwellers, as they could easily emulate the usage patterns of the horse and wagon. Electric-car garages appeared with a business model taken directly from livery stables: For a monthly fee, cars would be charged, cleaned and maintained nightly, and delivered to the house as needed, just like their carriages.

Electric cars proved to be popular with women. Hand-cranking was the gasoline car's biggest pain point, as it required physical strength and was fraught with danger: A starting attempt gone wrong could break arms, dislocate shoulders, and shatter teeth. Electric cars, on the other hand, started with the flip of a switch and rarely broke down. They were inherently more expensive than gasoline cars, so manufacturers began appointing them lavishly and targeting them toward upscale women. Owners included Ford's wife, Clara, who bought her first Detroit Electric in 1908. (Her 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham, seen below, is on display at The Henry Ford museum.) Electrics soon gained a reputation as the carriages of the elite, much like the high-priced Tesla Model S and X.

At the same time, businesses began to turn to electric trucks. These vehicles cost less to operate and moved faster than horses, and they required less maintenance than internal-combustion models. In 1911, the Detroit Free Press reported that Edison was developing a new battery small enough to fit in a suitcase and powerful enough to run a butcher wagon that could be quick-charged in the time it took to reload the truck. The announcement annoyed W.C. Anderson, builder of the Detroit Electric and Edison's biggest battery customer, who wrote to Edison that the press coverage would hamper sales of current vehicles. Edison denied making any such claim. The "suitcase battery" never emerged.

Even so, electric cars rode a surge of popularity: Sales nearly tripled between 1910-1912, though the 6,000 units sold in 1912 were a fraction of the 82,000 Model Ts that Ford sold.

Ford-Edison Electric Car Project

Though sales were low, EVs seemed promising enough that in 1914, Ford and Edison partnered to develop an experimental electric car—though the partnership may have been more about shoring up Edison's finances, as it involved Ford granting him a low-interest loan of $1.2 million. Public interest in a Ford-Edison electric car was high, though Ford insisted the exercise was purely an experiment. In the end, the prototypes were disappointing and the project was quietly killed around 1917. The partnership was also tasked with developing an electric starting system for the Model T, but Ford engineers found Edison's nickel-iron batteries couldn't develop sufficient power in cold weather. When the Model T finally offered electric starting in 1919, it used a lead-acid battery.

Charles Kettering's Electric Starter Dooms the EV

The electric starter, however—invented by Charles Kettering in 1912—largely put an end to the EV's new-found popularity. Self-starting overcame the primary barrier to driving for women, and the integrated electrical system meant drivers no longer needed to manually light acetylene lamps at night. Meanwhile, road paving in rural areas outpaced paving in cities, a factor that favored the gasoline touring car. Even as cheap electricity spread rapidly throughout the West, interest in the electric car faded, and few electric car builders survived past World War I. Detroit Electric was one of the last holdouts, and built its last electric car in 1939.

Gas vs Electric: Who will Succeed?

A strong economy and growing suburbs made gasoline king for decades. Electric cars saw a small resurgence at the turn of the 21st century, then all went dark for a decade—just like the period from 1900-1910. Now, electrics are back and interest is strong. Will electrics succeed, or will internal combustion once again re-assert its dominance? Perhaps this is the time history finally doesn't repeat itself.

For more information about the early history of the electric car, we recommend Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America by Michael Brian Schiffler.