This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Christopher Lampton from HowStuffWorks.com.
The automobile is one of those inventions that can be credited to many different inventors. The first "horseless carriages," as these vehicles were known as in the 18th and 19th centuries, were propelled by steam, which was the high-tech propulsion method of its day. However, the idea of making a carriage that was driven by electricity originated with a Scottish inventor named Robert Anderson, who built a crude battery-propelled carriage sometime between 1832 and 1839. The batteries weren't rechargeable -- in fact, the lead-acid rechargeable battery that's used in most cars today hadn't even been invented yet -- so Anderson's electric vehicle didn't have much impact on the history of automobiles. But despite being something of a footnote in automotive history books, Anderson was the inventor of the electric car.
The first commercially successful electric car didn't come along for another half century. Gustav Trouvé of France introduced the first three-wheeled electric vehicle at the International Exhibition of Electricity in Paris in 1881, but the first electric car that we would recognize as an automobile in the modern sense was invented by William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa, who the Des Moines Register, in its list of Famous Iowans, calls Morrison "decades ahead of his time." Morrison introduced his vehicle in the early 1890s. It could carry 6 people and it crawled along the road at 14 miles per hour (22.5 kilometers per hour) -- although some sources claim that it could go as fast as 20 miles per hour (32.2 kilometers per hour). At a time when horses were the most common mode of personal transportation, that was considered respectably fast. Morrison, who like Robert Anderson, was Scottish-born but had immigrated to the United States at an early age, was chiefly interested in developing batteries and his unnamed electric vehicle ran on a set of 24 rechargeable cells. Unfortunately, they needed to be recharged every 50 miles (80.5 kilometers), which limited Morrison's car as a practical mode of transportation.
Nonetheless, Morrison could reasonably be considered the inventor of the electric car. In fact, a surprising number of new electric cars appeared on the market over the following couple of decades, well into the 20th century. During that period, electric cars competed for the public's attention with steam-driven cars (the most famous being the Stanley Steamer) and cars propelled by internal combustion engines. Electric cars were the most popular of the three varieties until about 1914, when the internal combustion engine, which could go for fairly long distances without refueling, was finally made affordable to the average person by Henry Ford and his sophisticated production line techniques. In the shadow of the Model T, with its user-friendly four-stroke engine, electric cars faded into obscurity for nearly a century.
And now they're back. Improved batteries and more sophisticated methods of recharging have made electric motors competitive again with internal combustion engines, which pollute the atmosphere and burn up the earth's rapidly dwindling supply of fossil fuels. In the end, it may turn out that inventors like Robert Anderson and William Morrison made an important contribution to the future of transportation -- just as Henry Ford did.