The electric vehicle, a journey through almost 200 years of history

Electric Vehicle

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Did you know that the first electric car came before the first vehicle powered by a four-stroke engine? 

If there is one thing, we can all agree on, it is that electric vehicles exude an image of being both modern and futuristic. But is this completely true? The fact is that the electric vehicle is not a 21st-century invention, but rather a 19th century one. Moreover, it came only 30 years after the main invention of that century: the steam locomotive.

To discover the beginnings of the electric vehicle we must, despite the difficulty in establishing an exact date, travel back to the British Empire.

We are in Scotland, between 1832 and 1839. Thanks to the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were at the time a cultural and scientific hotbed in Europe. And the Scots were unaware that ten years later they would suffer the so-called Scottish potato famine.

Electric vehicle and non-rechargeable batteries

It is this breeding ground that led Robert Anderson, a Scottish businessman, to invent what historians consider the first ever electric vehicle.

It was in many ways a quite different vehicle from what we know today, reaching a top speed of 6 km/h, powered by non-rechargeable batteries. A very different model from the current network of charge points we find for this type of vehicle.

At this time, the British Empire, the Netherlands, the United States and the then Austro-Hungarian Empire were the birthplace of successive electric propulsion vehicles, which became ever more sophisticated and complete. They emerged as an alternative to the now-obsolete horse-drawn carriages that had been part of human history for centuries.

The Red Devil

Image of Edison with an electric car in 1913, compared to a modern-day electric vehicle
Image of Edison with an electric car in 1913

With the arrival of the first rechargeable battery back in 1890, combined with the increasing reliability of this type of vehicle, the horse and carriage began to be gradually replaced by a less dirty, more robust substitute that could reach speeds never seen before.

This was demonstrated by Camille Jenatzy, an intrepid Belgian pilot. At the start of the 20th century, he proclaimed himself the first man to break the 100 km/h speed barrier.

Le Diableu Rouge, so called because of the colour of his beard, managed to reach 105.88 km/h at the wheel of his brand new Jamais Contente. This electric car, also of Belgian origin, marked a turning point in automobile history.

 The electric vehicle LE JAMAIS CONTENTE.

Edison rechargeable batteries

The 20th century arrived and the electric car, far from being left behind, lived its most glorious era to date. It was Thomas Alba Edison and his new models of rechargeable batteries, based on a nickel and iron alloy, that led to electric vehicles making up 90% of vehicle sales at the start of the century, banishing the combustion engine to a marginal 10%.

Such was the supremacy of this type of vehicle that rudimentary, noisy petrol vehicles could not match their performance. Indeed, in some cases they reached speeds of 130 km/h. Such vehicles were at the cutting edge of technology of the time.

The question is: what caused this situation to change? It all stems from a number of reasons that, thanks to the inventor of mass production, Henry Ford, turned the automobile industry upside down.

The decline of the electric car: Henry Ford and mass production

As with the advent of the electric car, putting an exact date on its decline is difficult, but if there is one date that experts they agree on, it is 1912.

It was in the 1920s that Henry Ford, a leading figure in the automobile industry but who until then had not achieved overwhelming commercial success, managed to bring the unstoppable dominance of electric motors to a halt.

What was to blame? The electric starter engine introduced by Cadillac in 1913. This invention coincided with the mass production methods implemented by Ford Motor Company at its Detroit factories in 1908.

This combination was fortunate to give birth to the most complete vehicle model in history, the T-Model Ford, which saw production of over 15,000,000 units. Ford ended manufacture in 1927. The result was that the electric car quickly, and cruelly, became a thing of the past.

By the 1930s the electric vehicle industry had become largely irrelevant, a mere technological anecdote from a forgotten era.

Factors in the decline of the electric car

But was this the only reason for the electric car’s demise? As you might expect, the answer is no. Other factors must be added to the combination of starter engine and mass production, such as:

  • The price of crude oil had fallen thanks to anti-monopoly laws (a barrel cost $60 in 1880, compared to $15 in 1915).
  • Poor electricity generation and distribution infrastructure. Inability to supply energy to a burgeoning market.
  • The perception of autonomy as one of the most important points when purchasing a car, a feeling that continues today.
EVOLVING PRICE OF A BARREL OF CRUDE OIL BETWEEN 1860 AND 1970 (SOURCE: PUBLIC NEWSPAPER)
EVOLVING PRICE OF A BARREL OF CRUDE OIL BETWEEN 1860 AND 1970 (SOURCE: PUBLIC NEWSPAPER)

A vehicle for the upper clasess

In short, Henry Ford did a lot to end the dominance of electric vehicles. However, the lack of infrastructure that would allow them to continue to evolve, plus the absence of a long-term vision in terms of autonomy, led to the combustion vehicle becoming the main player over the last century, a position it still occupies today.

It should also be remembered that electric vehicles were created for the wealthy classes. The well-off were the only ones who could afford its high costs. However, with the decrease in production costs implemented in Ford factories, vehicles began to gradually intrude into the homes of the rest of the well-to-do classes in America and around the world.

The electric vehicle and Spain, a brief but passionate romance

The binomial between electric vehicles and Spain, although less prolific, is just as interesting. If there is one outstanding figure in this historical account of automobiles in Spain, this person is Emilio de la Cuadra, who tried to introduce this type of vehicle in the country following a visit to the International Exhibition in Paris in 1889.

De la Cuadra was fascinated by this technology, especially after being a spectator at one of the famous electric car races that covered the 1200 km between Paris and Bordeaux and decided it should be introduced in his native country. This is why, in 1898, he got rid of his electricity company in order to set up Compañía General de Coches-Automóviles Emilio de la Cuadra. After a year spent building prototypes of electric vehicles based on a truck, a car and a horse-drawn omnibus, Don Emilio’s adventure came to an end due to the lack of technological, material and economic resources, and he decided to turn his attention to the internal combustion engine. In 1901 the company closed down, ending the short but intense romance between Spain and electric vehicles.

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