The very first automobile show in America opened its doors to the public at Madison Square Garden in New York City on November 3, 1900. Sponsored by the fledgling Automobile Club of America, the event was a showcase of three competing turn-of-the-century automobile technologies: the internal combustion engine, steam power and electricity.

Of the 160 automobiles on display at that first car show in 1900, a full third of them were electric. (Compare that to 2023, when electric cars and trucks only captured 7.6 percent of total vehicle sales in America.) That’s because electric vehicles were some of the earliest automobiles ever invented, and they held distinct advantages over their gas- and steam-powered competitors.

Below is a timeline of 19th-century milestones in the development of electric vehicles.

1832: Robert Anderson Invents the First ‘Electric Carriage’

Not much is known about Scottish inventor Robert Anderson other than the well-documented fact that he was the first person to build a “horseless carriage” powered by an electric motor.

Batteries were quite primitive in the 1830s, so Anderson’s electric carriage couldn’t have traveled very fast or very far. But if you’re looking for the birth of the electric car, this is it, says Kevin A. Wilson, author of The Electric Vehicle Revolution: The Past, Present and Future of EVs.

“[Anderson’s invention] qualifies as a vehicle, although you can argue that it doesn’t qualify as a car,” says Wilson. “It is an electric vehicle capable of moving itself forward, so that’s significant.”

1859: Gaston Planté Makes the First Rechargeable Battery

The development of electric vehicles in the 19th century closely tracks the evolution of battery technology. Anderson’s electric carriage wasn’t practical, because its battery was only good for one charge and then needed to be replaced. That changed in 1859, when French chemist Gaston Planté came up with a lead-acid battery that could be recharged indefinitely.

Planté demonstrated his lead-acid technology for the French Academy of Sciences in 1860. Not only did the battery deliver a more powerful charge than previous batteries, but the flow of electrons could be reversed to recharge the battery from an outside electrical source. Even today, the standard 12V car battery in gas-powered vehicles is a lead-acid battery.

“Without the ability to recharge, there’s no battery that’s going to last long enough to be useful in an electric vehicle,” says Wilson. “The only modern electric vehicle that used a disposable, non-rechargeable battery was NASA’s lunar rover.”

1881: Camille Faure Invents a Lighter, Longer-Lasting Battery

Planté’s rechargeable battery was a game-changing technology, but his original lead-acid batteries were too large and heavy for early automobiles. The real breakthrough for electric vehicles was a much lighter and smaller version of a lead-acid battery invented by Camille Faure, another French chemist.

Faure honed his skills as a chemical engineer in an explosives factory. His ingenious innovation was to coat the lead plates of his battery with sulfates, greatly improving their efficiency. Faure’s batteries were small enough and powerful enough that several could be installed in an electric carriage or cart without weighing it down.

Wilson notes that Faure’s French patent was filed almost simultaneously with a similar invention by the American inventor Charles Bush, proof that people around the world were eagerly pursuing innovations in electricity and motorization.

1883: First Automobile Electric?

An 1899 electric carriage designed by French engineer Charles Jeantaud.
Public Domain
An 1899 electric carriage designed by French engineer Charles Jeantaud.

The invention of the first automobile is usually credited to Carl Benz, who filed a patent for his three-wheeled, gasoline-powered motor car in 1886. But Wilson argues that an electric vehicle built and sold by a French carriage maker may have beat Benz by three years.

Charles Jeantaud was a Parisian carriage maker and a business partner of Camille Faure. As early as 1881, Jeantaud started experimenting with Faure’s lightweight lead-acid batteries to power custom-built buggies.

“In the 19th century, a carriage maker was a local guy who you contracted with to build a carriage for your horse,” says Wilson. “When people like Jeantaud made the transition to vehicles, they were local people who built horseless carriages for a particular market area like Paris.”

Records indicate that Jeantaud was building and selling his electric buggies as early as 1883, three years before the first Benz motor car hit the streets of Germany. Jeantaud’s invention may have been overlooked because the first mass-produced vehicles carrying the Jeantaud brand didn’t appear until 1893.

1893: First Electric Car Displayed in America

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair came on the heels of the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, where crowds swarmed displays of some of the world’s first motorized vehicles. But it was at the 1893 Chicago event, known as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, that Americans got their first look at the future of transportation. And one of them was electric. 

William Morrison was a Scottish immigrant who settled in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1880. He was a chemist by training and became fascinated with electricity and batteries. Working in his basement lab below a jewelry store, Morrison independently developed his own lightweight battery. In 1887, he used the battery to build his first prototype automobile, a carriage built by the Des Moines Buggy Company with an electric engine that powered just one wheel.

Morrison showcased an updated version of his electric-powered buggy at the 1893 fair. The only other automobile on display was the Daimler “quadricycle,” a gas-powered vehicle that had more in common with a bicycle than a modern car. That’s not an accident, says Wilson, since bicycles had revolutionized transportation in the 1880s.

“Some of the earliest cars—even Henry Ford’s first model that he built in his shed—they referred to them as ‘quadricycles,’” says Wilson. “Some of them were quite literally that—two bicycles with a very rudimentary platform across them powered by a very rudimentary engine.”

1894: The First Electric Car with Regenerative Braking

Louis Antoine Krièger was a contemporary of Charles Jeantaud in France. Like Jeantaud, he was trying to find a market for horseless, motorized carriages in Paris, particularly taxicabs.

“In those days, they were literally horseless carriages, and that applied to gasoline cars as well,” says Wilson. “The steam cars ended up looking a little different a little earlier because of the necessity of having a boiler, which was bigger and heavier than gas or electric engines.”

Krièger was an electrical engineer (a new job title at the time) and built his own DC motor that was mounted on the front axle of the carriage and powered the two front wheels. Incredibly, Krièger’s motor could recharge its electric battery through regenerative braking, a technology that didn’t appear in modern hybrid and electric cars until a century later.

1897: Electric Taxicabs Come to NYC

Morris and Salom Electrobats pass in front of the Old Metropolitan Opera House on Manhattan's 39th Street in 1898.

Electric and hybrid taxis are a common sight in major cities today, but there were fully electric taxicabs carting around wealthy New Yorkers more than 100 years ago.

The inventors were Pedro Salom and Henry Morris of Philadelphia. Their first electric car was the oddly-named Electrobat (“bat” was for battery, not the flying mammal). The original Electrobat was more tank than car, weighing 4,400 lbs thanks to 1,600 lbs of lead-acid batteries.

Its follow-up, the Electrobat 2, was a slimmed down version—just 1,800 lbs—that Salom and Morris sold to a New York taxi startup called the Electric Vehicle Company. By the turn of the century, the EVC had 200 electric taxicabs on the streets of New York. Instead of recharging the batteries, which took forever, the EVC bought an old ice skating rink on Broadway and converted it into a battery-swapping station.

“It was a fascinating operation,” says Wilson. “When a battery was depleted, they’d roll the taxi into this converted ice arena, drop the old battery out of the bottom of the car and load in a fully charged one. Off they went.”

Electric taxis might have become a booming business at the turn of the century, but the Electric Vehicle Company succumbed to greed and mismanagement.

1899: An Electric Car Is First to Break 60 mph

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
In 1899, Camille Jenatzy drove a rocket-shaped electric car called La Jamais Contente (“Never Satisfied”) to a maximum speed of 65.8 mph.

Long-distance road races and speed trials were part of 19th-century automobile culture from the beginning. While electric vehicles struggled in the long-distance competitions—because their batteries needed to be recharged or swapped out along the route—they were impressive in short sprints.

In 1899, a Belgium engineer and electric car enthusiast named Camille Jenatzy drove a rocket-shaped racer called La Jamais Contente (“Never Satisfied”) to a maximum speed of 65.8 mph. He was the first automobile driver to break the 60-mph (100-kph) barrier and he did it in an electric car.

The electric race car was powered by 100 two-volt batteries and two rear-mounted electric motors that produced a combined 67 horsepower. But the difference-maker may have been the tires. Unlike most automobiles of the day, which used solid wooden wheels, Jenatzy contracted with Edouard and André Michelin for a set of four pneumatic rubber tires. 

1914: Henry Ford Buys His Wife an Electric Car

Henry Ford, perhaps more than anyone else, assured the dominance of gas-powered cars in the 20th century. Ford’s Model T, which debuted in 1908, brought affordable and reliable car ownership within reach of the average American.

But that doesn’t mean that Ford was anti-electric. He and Thomas Edison tried for years to develop an affordable Ford electric vehicle, but came up short. Ford saw the advantages of electric over early internal combustion engines.

“You could hop in an electric car and drive away, which was not the case for the internal combustion car until 1912 at least,” says Wilson. “They didn’t have electric starters before then, so you had to hand crank that thing to get the engine turning enough to make the magneto work to make the spark. It took some muscle.”

Electric engines were also quiet and clean, especially when compared to the clattering noise and thick exhaust of early gas-powered and steam engines.

The problem was, electric cars were expensive, especially when compared to Ford’s Model T. In 1914, Ford bought his wife Clara a stylish electric car from Detroit Electric, which marketed its easy-start products to women. The electric vehicle cost $3,730 compared to $440 for a 1914 Model T.

1920: Internal Combustion Engines Take Over

The beginning of the end for electric vehicles was 1903, when Clyde J. Coleman secured a patent for an electric automobile starter. A decade later, Charles Kettering at General Motors improved on Coleman’s design and installed the first electric starter in a 1912 Cadillac.

Before then, all gas-powered cars had to be started like the Model T, with a backbreaking crank of the engine. The addition of a battery-powered electric start made the crank obsolete. Ironically, it was electricity and batteries that helped the internal combustion engine dominate the automotive world.

“It wasn’t until after World War I that electric starters became a common option on Model Ts,” says Wilson. “By 1920, the balance had pretty much tipped away from electric and toward gas for good.” 

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