What is the history of electric cars?

By: John Fuller

Electric Car Manufacturing

Shorter range, better roads, trouble with batteries and a more reliable improved gasoline led to a halt in the electric car's popularity.
Shorter range, better roads, trouble with batteries and a more reliable improved gasoline led to a halt in the electric car's popularity.
Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the electric car manufacturing industry was relatively robust and successful. In 1900, for instance, out of the total of 2,370 automobiles found in New York, Chicago and Boston, 800 of those cars were fully electric. Surprisingly, only 400 cars were powered by gasoline and the remaining 1,170 were steam-powered automobiles -- popular because at the time steam technology was familiar and proven [source: Sulzberger].

After just a few decades of improvement, electric cars around this time were clean, quiet and relatively efficient. Most resembled horse-drawn carriages, since that's what most automobiles looked like at the time -- a horse cart without the horse. In 1899, there were about 12 manufacturers making electric cars in the United States, and many of the cars were used as cabs in cities where the driving distances were often shorter -- mainly due to the limited charge of the batteries.


Gasoline-powered cars during this time, on the other hand, were extremely noisy and smelled awful. They were often unreliable and had to be started (cranked) by hand, which was actually dangerous because it could lead to some nasty injuries. Fuel efficiency was embarrassing, and cars around this time didn't really support our current notion of eco-friendly driving. But after a short while, the loudness and power of gasoline-powered cars actually became a positive, exotic attribute, and the kinks surrounding inefficiency and hazardous operation were eventually worked out.

One thing gas-powered cars had going for them was speed and range. Major obstacles for the electric car popped up in the form of the search for practical, rechargeable batteries. Even Thomas Edison, the American inventor (and a proponent of electric cars), spent some time trying to improve the electric car's battery. In fact, he was even able to extend an automobile's range to 100 miles. But his battery had its flaws; it was too heavy, easily damaged and expensive. Other battery improvements around the same time typically suffered from a combination of the same setbacks. By the time Henry Ford introduced his Model T, American roads were somewhat better and the demand for long-range vehicles was in place. The internal combustion engine quickly gained momentum and surpassed the electric motor as the popular choice among motorists. The Model T gave the people what they wanted in a reliable and inexpensive package.

However, by no means does the history of the electric car end around the turn of the 20th century. A few electric prototypes emerged during the 1960s and 1970s, and General Motors EV1, the subject of the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" enjoyed some exposure during the 1990s. Recently, Toyota's RAV4 EV and the Tesla Roadster have caught people's attention, but high costs have made it difficult for either one of these vehicles to reach the mainstream. The three major U.S. automakers have announced plans to produce affordable electric vehicles in the near future, so, who knows? A new story may soon begin.

For lots more information on electric cars, fuel-efficient vehicles and green driving, follow the links below.

AutoHybrid CarsHow Electric Cars WorkAutoHybrid CarsElectric Car PicturesAutoFuel-efficient VehiclesWill I get shocked if I drive an electric car through a big puddle?AutoFuel-efficient VehiclesHow Electric Car Batteries WorkAutoHybrid CarsWhat is a potentiometer in an electric car?AutoHybrid CarsHow Electric Car Labs WorkAutoPorschePorsche Joins Electric Vehicle Race With 2020 TaycanAutoOther Makes & ModelsCould Electric Motor Conversions Save Classic Cars?AutoUnusual CarsHow the G-Wiz Electric Car WorksAutoHybrid CarsHow Electric Car Charging Networks WorkAutoHybrid TechnologyCan I buy an electric car at Sam's Club?AutoHybrid CarsIs there a way to create an all-electric car you don't have to plug in?AutoHybrid TechnologyHow Electric Car Conversion Kits WorkAutoHybrid TechnologyWhat is the history of electric cars?AutoUnusual CarsHow big is the world's smallest electric car?AutoFuel ConsumptionHow can a speed bump harvest electricity?AutoFuel-efficient VehiclesThis Woman's Job Is to Figure Out Why People Don't Buy Electric CarsAutoHybrid CarsIs an all-electric car a bad investment?AutoTypes of EnginesHow Does an Electric Water Pump Benefit Your Engine?AutoPlug-in HybridsWhat is the plug-in electric vehicle credit?AutoFuel ConsumptionIndia Plans to Switch All New Cars to Electric by 2030AutoTech and TransportShared Electric Scooters: Commuter Solution or Urban Nightmare?AutoHybrid CarsCan Electric Car Batteries Be Recycled?AutoHybrid CarsWill Electric Cars Require More Maintenance?AutoHybrid CarsChallenges Facing the Electric Car IndustryAutoHybrid CarsAre electric cars safe in accidents?AutoHybrid CarsAre Electric Cars Cheaper to Run?AutoAuto ManufacturingHow old is the electric car?AutoConcept CarsToyota's Newest Electric Concept Car Is Made of WoodAutoFuel-efficient VehiclesElectric Car Charging Goes Super FastAutoHybrid CarsElectric Cars vs. Hydrogen Fuel Cell CarsAutoHybrid CarsTop 10 Electric Car Frequently Asked QuestionsAutoHybrid CarsHow Does Horsepower Figure Into Electric Cars?AutoFuel-efficient VehiclesTesla's New Model 3 Aims Squarely at the Electric Car MainstreamAutoFuel EconomyWill all vehicles eventually be all electric?AutoTransmissions & DrivetrainGas-powered vs. Electric Cars: Which Is Faster?AutoHybrid CarsHow Long Does it Take To Charge an Electric Car?AutoHybrid CarsHow Much Does It Cost to Charge an Electric Car?AutoHybrid Cars12 Myths About Electric VehiclesAutoConcept CarsUnveiled at CES: The Electric Car Hoping to Beat Tesla at Its GameAutoFuel EconomyGas vs. Grid: Gasoline and Electricity Face OffAutoHybrid CarsCharging an Electric CarAutoHybrid CarsInside an Electric CarAutoHybrid CarsDoing a Conversion - Electric Car ConversionAutoHybrid TechnologyThe First Electric CarAutoHybrid CarsAn Electric Car ExampleAutoHybrid CarsElectric-car Motors and BatteriesAutoConcept CarsHow the Tesla Roadster Works

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Daily Mail. "The world's first electric car…built by a British inventor in 1884." April 29, 2009. (May 4, 2009) car--built-British-inventor-1884.html?ITO=1490
  • Electric Auto Association. "Electric Vehicle History." (May 4, 2009)
  • "April 2008 Dashboard: Hybrids Sales Defy Recession." May 13, 2008. (May 8, 2009)
  • Idaho National Laboratory. "The History of Electric Cars: The Early Years (1890-1930)." March 31, 2005. (May 4, 2009)
  • "Timeline: Life & Death of the Electric Car." June 9, 2006. (May 4, 2009)
  • Romero, Frances. "A Brief History of the Electric Car." TIME. Jan. 13, 2009. (May 4, 2009),8599,1871282,00.html
  • Sulzberger, Carl. "Electric Vehicles In The Early Years Of The Automobile." IEEE Power & Energy Magazine. May-June 2004, Vol. 2, Issue 3. Pgs. 66-71. (May 4, 2009)