What is the history of electric cars?

By: John Fuller

The First Electric Car

The first practical electric car may have been built by the English inventor Thomas Parker in 1884.
The first practical electric car may have been built by the English inventor Thomas Parker in 1884.
AP Photo

Although people had been trying with zeal to develop a self-propelled road vehicle for centuries -- it was world renowned painter, sculptor, inventor and scientist Leonardo da Vinci who designed a primitive version of the car way back in the 15th century -- yet it wasn't until the late 19th century that the age of the automobile really began. Cars at this point in history became a plausible form of transportation after years of tinkering by restless, curious inventors. And gasoline engines weren't the only ideas floating around. Electric motors, diesel engines and steam engines were all possibilities during the 19th century, and competition would become fierce. Green driving wasn't necessarily a concern; just getting the cars to work correctly was the most important issue.

So, when was the world's first electric car built? Well, that depends on your definition. The first working electric motor and electric vehicle, a small locomotive that used two electromagnets, a pivot and a battery, was built by Thomas Davenport, an American from Vermont, in 1834 or 1835. Thinking about the time period can be surprising -- in 1834, Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge passed away and French painter Edgar Degas was born. The material for Davenport's electromagnetic design, however, was simply too expensive at the time, and it would be several decades before electric cars would be practical.


Other electric car inventors around this early period include Robert Anderson of Scotland, who may have designed an electric carriage sometime between the years of 1832 and 1839, and Sibrandus Stratingh, a Dutch inventor who built an electromagnetic cart during the 1830s.

If we're talking about practical electric cars that were (or could have been) mass-produced and driven practically, however, then the first electric car was most likely built by Thomas Parker, a British inventor, in 1884. Parker was also the man responsible for electrifying the London Underground (known today as the Tube), and his interest in fuel efficiency and fuel-efficient vehicles seemed to spark a desire to build an electric car. According to Graham Parker, Thomas' great-grandson, smoke and pollution in London turned his great grandfather's thoughts to more eco-friendly driving [source: Daily Mail].

As the 19th century came to a close and the 20th century began, electric cars were becoming even more popular than gasoline-powered cars. But what happened? Find out on the next page.

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